MAKES 2 "EELS," OR 8 SERVINGS
When I was in Perugia, the capital city of the landlocked region of Umbria, I took a baking class from Signorina Carla Sandri, owner of Sandri's Pasticceria. First on the day's schedule was the making of the "eels of Trasimeno", Trasimeno being the largest lake in central Italy, and a favorite vacation spot for Perugians. I didn't dare ask how eels could fit into the category of pastry.
I soon found out that these eels were made from almonds, candied fruit, and egg whites, shaped to look like the real thing. This is a very old recipe traditionally served at Christmas.
1 pound blanched whole almonds, plus 16 for decoration
1 2/3 cups sugar
1/2 cup candied citron, finely chopped
1/2 cup candied orange peel, finely chopped
4 large egg whites
2 candied cherries, cut in quarters
1/2 cup apricot jam
Chop the 1 pound almonds very fine by hand (or use a food processor, but it will cause the oils in the almonds to break down somewhat). Put them in a bowl, add the sugar, citron, and orange peel, and mix well. In a bowl, lightly beat the egg whites with a fork. Gradually add enough of the egg whites to the almond mixture to form a dough; all of the whites may not be needed. With floured hands, work the dough until it holds together.
Preheat the oven to 300ºF. Grease and flour a baking sheet.
Divide the dough in half. Using the palms of your hands, roll out each half to form an eel or serpent shape about 13 inches long, with one end wider for the head and the other one narrower for the tail. Place them on the baking sheet.
Cut 7 Vs on the top of each eel with scissors, working toward the tail. Place a whole almond in each V to simulate scales. Use the cherries for the eyes and almonds for tongues.
Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until nicely browned. Carefully remove to a rack and let cool.
In a small saucepan, heat the apricot jam until melted and smooth. Brush the warm glaze over the eels. Cut in pieces and serve.
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