Buon martedì grasso! Welcome to the February edition of Cucina Conversations. Our posts are early this month since we are reprising the fun topic of carnevale which in Italy began on February 3rd and ends today, “Fat Tuesday”. For the past two weeks, the shiny bakery cases of pasticcerie (pastry shops) and forni (bakeries) across Italy have been filled with overflowing trays traditional carnevale sweets: castagnole di ricotta (ricotta fritters), frìtole veneziane (Venetian sweet fritters), bomboloni (doughnuts), fritelle di mele (apple fritters), and my personal favorites, crostoli (fried pastry ribbons). Crostoli have a special place in my heart and culinary memory because both my maternal nonna Liliana and paternal nonna Ada used to make these every year during the days of carnevale and also for celebratory occasions and family parties. I grew up calling these sweet ribbons of fried dough crostoli as well as frappe since my nonna Ada was from the Veneto (where they are called crostoli), and my nonna Liliana was from Lazio (where they are called frappe). Both nonne shaped and served their crostoli a little differently: nonna Liliana cut her dough into long strips and tied each one in a loose knot; nonna Ada cut her dough into large squares and rectangles. Their finished crostoli were showered with abundant sugar–nonna Liliana’s with powdered sugar, and nonna Ada’s with granulated sugar–before being piled high in a serving bowl or onto a large platter, ready for many happy family members and friends to devour.
Depending on where you find yourself in Italy, these delicate, fried strips of sweet dough go by many different and creative names: sfrappole, chiacchere della nonna (“grandmother’s chatter”), frappe (“fringes”) , crostoli, galani, bugie (“lies”), intrigoni, donzelle, nodi d’amore (“love knots”), cenci (“rags”), lattughe, and nastri di suore (“nun’s ribbons”). Recipes for these treats also vary from region to region and household to household. There are recipes which include either butter or lard in the dough and other recipes which do not include a fat at all. Most recipes for crostoli include a splash of liquor, which is often up to the cook’s fantasia (imagination). Anise liquor is ubiquitous but it’s not a favorite of mine, so each year when I make these I alternate between rum, Grand Marnier, and brandy. Grappa, a sinus-clearing liquor distilled from the remains of the wine-making process, is also a popular spirit used to make crostoli.
Three years ago, when I made these, I followed the late Marcella Hazan’s recipe which uses butter and white wine in the dough. It turned out a decent batch of pastry ribbons, but they didn’t have much flavor and although they were crisp, they lacked the shattering crispness that is the trademark of a good batch of crostoli. Since I enjoy making variations of the same dish, this year, I made the crostoli recipe from Italian Street Food by my food blogging friend, Paola Bacchia. It is her mother Livia’s recipe which I think makes these extra-special since they have been prepared over many years by experienced hands. Paola regularly features her adorable mamma on her Instagram profile, both in her photos and stories, so if you don’t follow her, be sure to add her to your feed. Hers is one of my favorite Instagram accounts to follow. Her photography is gorgeous.
I doubt I’ll ever try another crostoli recipe again because the one from Paola’s cookbook turned out the crostoli of my childhood memories–shatteringly crisp, flaky, and delicate. The dough does not include any fat which I believe makes a huge difference in the final product. A small amount of fat does come from the eggs and egg yolk, which help bind the dough together, but it’s a negligible amount that doesn’t weigh down the dough. The zest of one whole orange adds a delicate citrus perfume which I accented with Grand Marnier, my favorite liquor. The finished crostoli had a delightful hint of citrus in every crisp bite. A splash of white wine vinegar keeps the dough elastic and supple and makes it a dream to roll out, whether you choose to roll it out by hand or using a pasta machine.
As far as shaping the crostoli goes, this is also up to the cook’s fantasia. You can make them bite-size, in large strips or squares, or tied in knots. The only detail I encourage is to use a fluted pastry wheel to cut the sheets of dough. A sharp knife will work just as well, but a fluted pastry wheel gives the crostoli an extra festive touch. I followed Paola’s cutting and shaping method which I’ve admired in so many of her Instagram photos: the sheets of dough are cut into wide rectangles with a cut made in the middle of each rectangle through which you thread one end of the dough strip to make a bow. It was both easy and fun to make them this way and they puffed and blistered beautifully in the hot oil. Once all the crostoli are cooked and cooled, all you have to do is pile them into a large bowl or onto a big serving platter and dust them generously with powdered sugar. And when you begin eating them, you will quickly understand the meaning of the Italian expression, uno tira l’altro (“one pulls another”). Just watch how fast they disappear!
My fellow Cucina Conversations friends have a beautiful and decadent array of sweet and savory recipes for this month’s carnevale theme. Francesca made zeppole sarde, a traditional sweet from the enchanting island of Sardegna, that is scented with exotic saffron. Rosemarie made bugie ripiene, fried pastry ribbons filled with apricot jam and dusted with powdered sugar. Marialuisa made ciambelle fritte (fried doughnut rings) scented with the bright flavor of orange zest. Carmen made a gorgeous parmigiana di zucchine, where she is celebrating the southern hemisphere’s summer bounty. Daniela also went the savory route with risotto con seppia e bietola (risotto with cuttlefish and chard), a carnevale recipe typical to the Tuscan city of Viareggio where Daniela lives. Lisa has made Strauben–also known as frittelle tirolesi–a traditional and beautiful carnevale treat from the north-eastern region of Trentino-Alto Adige, which look similar to American funnel cakes!
Wishing everyone a buon martedì grasso and a peaceful Lenten season!
Adapted from Italian Street Food by Paola Bacchia
If you cannot find superfine sugar at your grocery store, simply blitz some sugar in a food processor and measure out the quantity needed.
Special equipment: food processor (optional), rolling pin, pasta machine (optional, but recommended), fluted pastry wheel (optional), sharp knife
5 ¾ cups (650 grams) all-purpose flour
¼ cup + 2 Tablespoons (85 grams) superfine granulated sugar
Pinch of salt
2 large eggs + 1 large egg yolk, lightly beaten
¼ cup (45 mL) Grand Marnier liquor
Zest of 1 orange
3 teaspoons white wine vinegar
⅓ cup (70 mL) water
Vegetable oil, for frying (how much you use will depend on the size of your cooking vessel)
Powdered sugar, for decorating
Line 2-3 baking sheets with parchment paper. Set aside. Keep the parchment paper readily available.
Place the flour, sugar, and salt in a large mixing bowl and whisk to combine. Add in the beaten eggs, Grand Marnier, orange zest, vinegar, and water and mix with your hands (or a wooden spoon) until most of the mixture holds together. Alternately, you can mix the ingredients together in a food processor fitted with the steel blade (or the dough blade if your mixer has one).
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured board and knead a few times until the dough finishes coming together and is smooth and firm. If necessary, add more water a few drops at a time until the dough comes together. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and let it sit at room temperature for 30 minutes to 1 hour. This resting time will allow the gluten in the dough to relax which will make the dough tender and easy to roll out.
When you are ready to roll out the dough, divide the dough ball into quarters. Keep the dough pieces you are not working with covered well with the plastic wrap. On a lightly floured board, roll out a piece of dough into a rectangle wide enough to fit through the widest setting on a pasta machine. Roll the dough once through the widest setting (usually #1) and then fold the sheet of dough in thirds (as if you were tri-folding a letter). Run the dough one more time through the widest setting. Keep reducing the width of the pasta machine and feed the sheet of dough through each setting twice until you arrive at the last or second-to-last setting. Keep the board and the sheet of dough lightly floured at all times to prevent ripping or sticking. By the time you get to the last setting, the sheet of dough should be very thin (you should be able to see the shadow of your hand clearly through the dough). Note: if the sheet of dough gets too long as you are feeding it through the pasta machine, simply cut it in half or into thirds to make it more manageable, but remember what setting you left off at for each piece of dough so you roll each piece out to the same thickness.
Using a fluted pastry wheel (or a sharp knife), cut the thin sheets of dough into even rectangles. Each rectangle should be roughly 8 cm (3 ¼ inches) long. Make a small slit in the center of each rectangle strip. Thread one end of each rectangle strip through the slit to make a bow. Place the shaped dough bows on a single layer (not touching) on the parchment-lined baking sheets (see picture above in blog post). As the baking sheets fill up, cover each layer with a piece of parchment paper and place more dough bows on the fresh sheet of parchment paper (don’t worry, you won’t squash the ones on the bottom).
Repeat the dough-rolling, cutting, and shaping process until you have used up all the dough.
Line a baking sheet with 2-3 layers of paper towels and set by the stovetop.
Fill a cast iron skillet (or heavy-bottomed pot) no more than ⅓ to halfway full with the vegetable oil. How much oil you use will depend on the size of your frying vessel. Heat the oil over medium heat until it reaches 350°F (180°C) on an oil/candy or instant-read thermometer. Cook 3-4 crostoli at a time for 30-45 seconds on one side, making sure not to over-crowd the skillet/pot. Flip each crostoli and cook a few more seconds on the second side, until the dough is golden. Remove the crostoli to the paper towel-lined baking sheet to drain and cool. Repeat this cooking process until all the crostoli have been fried.
To make room for the crostoli coming out of the fryer, remove the drained and cooled crostoli to a large platter, bowl, or storage container.
Dust the crostoli with powdered sugar just before serving.
Storage: Store the crostoli (un-decorated) in an ample container, tightly sealed.