Christmas in Calabria: Pignolata and Cumpettu

It’s difficult to pinpoint one particular aspect of the Christmas season as my absolute favorite, but holiday baking (and eating) has got to be right up there on the list.

My mom and grandmother always went a tad bit crazy at Christmas with cookies, so I have excellent role models as I begin to create sweet traditions with my own daughter.

Yes, Virginia, I believe this is the year when we give holiday baking a go with a toddler in tow.

Can I get a “Ho ho ho?!”

Two years ago, I had a nearly two-month-old baby strapped to my body at nearly all times and was not about to tackle holiday baking while trying to adjust to new mommyhood. Last year I had a nearly 14-month-old who had discovered the wonder of walking a couple months prior, so yeah, no cookies last year either.

This year, however, I have a newly-turned-two-year-old who not only amuses herself for short spurts of time (occasionally) but also even helps me in the kitchen (“helps” is a matter of interpretation), so I hereby declare it’s time for our Calabr-American Christmas baking traditions to begin!

And what better way to start than with two Calabrian Christmas classics (i dolci tipici natalizi della Calabria) like pignolata and cumpettu?



pignolata calabrese

Pignolata calabrese is similar to the struffoli of Naples: small, fried dough balls coated in honey and then covered with colored sprinkles. It is not to be confused with the also delicious pignolata cookies. Not surprisingly, these sweet treats tend to be a big hit with kids.

And with big kids with an insatiable sweet tooth like myself.

As with all of these types of regional recipes, you’ll find small variations from town to town, so if you’re making this, you may want to poke around the Google a bit (ouch!) and fiddle with the recipe you use. This one doesn’t use yeast or liqueur, but many others do–and I’m thinking it would be lovely with limoncello.

  • 3 cups flour
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • 2 tbsp orange/lemon zest
  • 3 eggs, lightly beaten
  • vegetable oil for frying
  • 3/4 cup honey
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • colored sprinkles
  1. In a large bowl, combine flour, salt, and zest. Add eggs one at a time and mix until it forms a dough.
  2. Place dough on well-floured surface and knead for a few minutes until smooth. Cover with plastic wrap and let rest for one hour.
  3. Break off pieces of dough and roll into long strips, about 1/4-inch thick. With a sharp knife or pastry cutter, cut into  1/4-inch pieces and put aside on a floured surface. Make sure they don’t stick together.
  4. In a large skillet, heat the vegetable oil over medium-high heat. Fry the dough balls for a couple minutes until they are lightly golden, careful not to crowd. Remove from the oil with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.
  5. In a separate pan that will be large/deep enough to add the dough balls, combine honey and sugar and cook over medium heat. Simmer just until sugar is melted.
  6. Remove from heat and gently add the dough balls, stirring to coat. Remove with a slotted spoon and arrange them in your desired form. Piled high like a Christmas tree makes for a nice presentation as do individual servings in small paper cups. Add the sprinkles.
  7. Let cool before digging in.



Cumpettu calabrese

Cumpettu (also called cupeta, copata, or cubbiata) is translated as sesame-seed torrone, which I guess they are but they are truly so much more. U cumpettu are bars of sesame seeds and sliced almonds held together with cooked wine must and sugar (and in some recipes, honey). I think of this as a grown-up treat as it is rather bittersweet–and supremely addictive. Kids seem to love it here, though, as well.

Sesame seeds in local dialect are called giuggiulena, (jewj-jew-LAY-nah) which is my favorite word in dialect evah. It is also what these treats are called in some other parts of the south. Some recipes also call for the zest of a lemon or orange, but Zia doesn’t add that so I don’t either. If you do, it should be in the step with the almonds.

  • About 9 oz sesame seeds
  • 1/4 liter cooked wine must
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • Almonds to taste (optional)
  1. Wash the sesame seeds and spread out on a baking sheet to dry in a warm oven until they are lightly toasted.
  2. In a pot, heat must over medium heat and then add sugar, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the sugar is melted.
  3. Add the sesame seeds, still stirring.
  4. After about fifteen minutes, add almonds.
  5. The mixture is ready when it’s rather thick and sticking to the spoon.
  6. Using a spatula, spread the mixture onto an oiled marble (or other nonstick surface, many use wax or parchment paper). The layer should be about 1/2 to 3/4 of an inch thick.
  7. Let it cool and set and then cut in the desired shape, which around here is invariably rhomboid (as you can see in the photo).


For those curious about the American cookies I make, I have written about some of them in the following posts:


What are your holiday baking traditions?


This month’s Italy Blogging Roundtable topic was SWEET. And how sweet it is . . . check out the other posts:


12 Beans of Wisdom to “Christmas in Calabria: Pignolata and Cumpettu”
  1. 12.18.2015

    This cracks me up, every town has its own name for this

    michelle Reply:

    Yes indeed…and all different recipes too! Auguri!

  2. 12.18.2015

    Mom taught me everything when it came to baking. I can remember her making her sugar cookies and Italian knots. Could never get the hang of making those knots and she would whip through them so fast and still take the take to show me and always tell me how wonderful they were, even though they did not look like a knot but a deformed pretzel. She is in a nursing home now and I go at least four times a week. Took her some of her sugar cookies and she smiled with joy as she ate every last crumb. So my favorite is Italian knots and yes her famous sugar cookies. Memories are embedded in my mind of Christmas past and the making of mom’s cookies fill me with joy yet a little sadness that she cannot be there making those Italian knots. By the way she would be proud of me I can whip those just as fast and they look just like mom’s. Enjoy your little girl past down to her the joy of baking on the holidays giving her the memory of your grandmother, mother and now your Italian recipes and the heritage we are so proud of. Have a wonderful Christmas and a blessed New Year. Bona Natale Hope I spelled hat right LOL

    michelle Reply:

    Aww this is so sweet, Paulette, thank you for sharing. My mom and I spent a lot of time making Christmas cookies too…hopefully one of these years she’ll also be able to make them with Marisa 🙂 Auguri!

  3. 12.20.2015

    i think I gained a kilo reading your post! Glad to hear you are back to the dolci di Natale. We are Pugliese and make crustoli, cartellate -similar to crustoli, but in a rosebud shape and drenched in vino cotto, pettole (similar to zeppole) and cauzuncill (calzoncelli, calzoncini). They are all fried and wonderful. Photos of cauzuncill’ can be found here . My Mamma has also made an Abruzzese version of Pignolata in the past, as our neighbours made them. Oh and how could I forget Pizza con la Ricotta-this one is not fried. I’m helping to make cauzuncill on Tuesday. Yum Yum. Buon Natale!

    michelle Reply:

    Mmmmm and now I’m gaining kilos reading your comment…Christmas sweets are just the best, especially when steeped in tradition <3 Auguri carissima!

  4. 12.22.2015

    Hi Michele,
    My holiday baking tradition is to enjoy all the wonderful cookies other people make! My Grandmother was a wonderful baker and so I grew up lazy in that area, sorry to say. However, thanks for these recipes in English measurements. The cumpettu looks like a great option for those averse to nuts.
    Buon Natale!

    michelle Reply:

    Goodies baked by others always taste better to me too haha…the cumpettu often has sliced almonds in it, but they are easy to leave out and you’re right, would be excellent for the nut-averse. Buone feste 🙂

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