Buon martedì grasso and welcome to the February edition of Cucina Conversations! Today is Fat Tuesday, the last day for Christians worldwide to indulge before the lean forty days of Lent. Martedì grasso is also the final day of carnevale season. This month, the bloggers of Cucina Conversations are telling you about the variety of traditional foods prepared and eaten during the three weeks of carnevale. To commemorate my recent trip to the Veneto and my northern Italian heritage, I made frìtole veneziane–known in the Venetian dialect as frìtoe venessiane– a yeasted sweet fritter laced with liquor-soaked raisins and fragrant pine nuts, and coated abundantly in granulated sugar. Frìtole are considered an institution of the carnevale di Venezia. They are the most popular fried sweet treat of the city’s pre-Lenten celebrations, and the pristine bakery cases and storefront windows of every pasticceria (pastry shop) has trays overflowing with frìtole every year.
Frìtole veneziane date back to the fourteenth century, and a recipe for this fried sweet treat can be found in a document from the 1300’s preserved in Rome’s Biblioteca Nazionale Catanese. The document containing the recipe is considered the oldest record of Venetian gastronomic history. In the 1600’s, frìtole were made and sold only by frtolèri–men who had mastered the craft of making treats from fried dough. The group of roughly seventy men was so influential throughout Venezia that they formed a union with the objective of preserving their craft and the tradition of making frìtole. The profession was so exclusive that it was passed down strictly from father to son until the fall of the Venetian republic in 1797, when the union was dissolved and the fritolèri disappeared from Venetian society.
Although fritolèri no longer dot the narrow calle of Venezia selling one of the first “street foods”, the traditional recipe for these pillowy, golden balls of sweet, fried dough has (thankfully) stood the test of time. Frìtole are not only found in Venezia’s pasticcerie (pastry shops) and forni (bakeries), they are just as frequently found being made in home kitchens. I have no memory of eating frìtole veneziane when I was growing up, but it’s entirely possible that my paternal nonna Ada made these given that she was a master of many traditional recipes of the Veneto, and frittura (fried food) was one of her specialties. Since I spent so much time enjoying the food coming out of both my paternal and maternal grandmother’s kitchens when I was younger and didn’t develop an interest in learning how to cook until I was in my twenties, I now feel like I’m making up for lost time in trying to learn the recipes of my family heritage. It’s definitely a fun (and delicious) endeavor! I was incredibly proud when my frìtole veneziane turned out perfectly on my first try and I like to think that my nonna Ada would approve of these.
Although several variations of frìtole veneziane exist, it’s the traditional recipe that most home cooks prefer to make. The batter consists of basic Italian pantry (and cocktail bar) ingredients: yeast, milk, flour, sugar, raisins, pine nuts, egg, citrus zest, and a fragrant liquor of your choice. I happen to adore Grand Marnier so I decided to perfume my frìtole with the essence of orange and the results were fantastic. The amount of liquor used in this recipe is small, but it is just enough to rehydrate the raisins and scent the frìtole. I was initially surprised at the quantity of yeast called for in the recipe, but given the fact that there are two heavier ingredients in the batter–egg and milk–the amount of yeast used makes sense. After less than an hour, the batter had doubled beautifully with big, airy pockets. The batter is rather thick and sticky, but the frìtole cook into light, golden puffs that crunch delicately as you bite into their sugar-coated exterior. If you are feeling ambitious, you could channel your inner pasticcere (pastry chef), omit the raisins and pine nuts, and fill the frìtole with Nutella, pastry cream, chantilly cream, or zabaglione. As with any fried food, frìtole veneziane are best eaten the day they are made and they are a perfect treat to share during the festive days of carnevale.
The bloggers of Cucina Conversations are sharing some decadent carnevale recipes this month. Francesca is sharing a recipe for castagnole di ricotta, fried ricotta dough balls rolled in sugar; Lisa made Nutella crostoli, sweet pastry dough squares stuffed with Nutella and deep fried; and Daniela fried up a batch of bomboloni, Italian-style doughnuts, very similar to frìtole. The indulgent foods of carnevale aren’t only sweet, though…there are many traditional savory recipes enjoyed before Lent begins. Rosemarie made fagioli grassi (“fat beans”); Marialuisa is sharing her recipe for polpette al sugo di pomodoro (meatballs in tomato sauce); and Carmen made baccalà con peperoni cruschi (salt cod with crispy peppers).
Enjoy our recipes and buon martedì grasso a tutti!
Adapted from Cibo di Strada
If you do not like pignoli or are allergic to nuts, simply omit them. If you cannot consume alcoholic beverages for any reason, you can rehydrate the raisins in hot water.
30 grams (¼ cup) raisins (golden or dark)
30 ml (2 Tablespoons) Grand Marnier (you can also use rum, grappa, or Marsala)
200 ml (scant 1 cup) milk (whole or 2%), warmed to 100°F -110°F (37°C – 43°C)
25 grams (2½ Tablespoons) active dry yeast
250 grams (scant 2 cups) 00 flour or all-purpose flour
30 grams (2 Tablespoons) granulated sugar + more for coating
30 grams (¼ cup) pignoli (pine nuts)
1 large egg
Zest of 1 small orange or lemon
Vegetable oil for deep frying (The amount you use will vary on the size of pan/pot you use. Read this article for some good frying tips.)
Place the raisins in a small bowl and pour the Grand Marnier over them. Set aside for the raisins to soak and rehydrate.
Make the sponge: Place the milk in a mixing bowl and sprinkle in the yeast, whisking well to incorporate the yeast into the milk. Add in 50 grams (¼ cup plus 2 Tablespoons) of the flour and mix in to incorporate. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set aside to rest for half an hour. The mixture will bubble as the yeast activates.
While the sponge is resting, drain the raisins through a colander, reserving the Grand Marnier in a small bowl. Place the raisins on a paper towel and pat dry. Transfer the raisins to the bowl of remaining flour and toss to coat. This will prevent the raisins from sinking to the bottom of the frìtole as they fry.
After the sponge has rested, uncover the bowl and add in the remaining flour-raisin mixture, sugar, pine nuts (if using), egg, orange zest, and reserved Grand Marnier. Use a wooden spoon or spatula to incorporate all the ingredients until a thick batter forms, being careful not to over-mix. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set aside in a warm and draft-free area for 30-45 minutes to rest. After the batter has rested, it will be doubled in size, bubbly, and airy.
Prepare your frying station: Line a baking sheet with 2-3 layers of paper towels and set near the stove. Fill a small bowl with some granulated sugar and set it near the paper towel-lined baking sheet. Place a serving platter next to the bowl of sugar.
Heat a heavy-bottomed pot or cast iron skillet over medium heat, pour in the oil, and heat the oil until it registers 350°F (180°C) on an instant read/candy thermometer. Use a spoon or a cookie scoop to drop the batter (carefully) into the hot oil in large dollops, being careful not to over-crowd the pan. You want to make the frìtole approximately the size of golf balls, or a touch larger.
Use two forks or chopsticks to flip the frìtole–they will only need to be flipped once because they cook quickly. Use a slotted spoon or spider to transfer the frìtole onto the baking sheet lined with paper towels. Get more frìtole cooking in the hot oil right away. Adjust the heat as necessary to prevent the oil from burning.
Take the frìtole that have just finished cooking and turn them a couple of times over the paper towels to dry off any excess oil, then drop them one-by-one into the bowl with the sugar and toss to coat. *Keep a close eye on the frìtole that are frying. Place the sugar-coated frìtole on the serving platter and serve warm.