I love Carnival in Tuscany. From the tiniest village party to the huge street parade in Viareggio, tricksters and costumes abound. Tiny children parade on Sunday afternoon along the Arno River dressed as Zorro or little princesses, while older kids run around spraying colored threads from cans and launching confetti in fistfuls at passers-by. I have learned not to laugh to avoid ending up with a mouthful.
The Carnival season begins just after Christmas. Originally meant as a preparation for Lent, la Quaresima, and the period of no meat, carne levarum, it is now a time of wild parades and fabulous fried desserts available at local friggitorie, fry shops, pastry shops and festivals.
Each region in Italy has special sweets prepared for Carnival, many are the same treats, changing in name only. Variations on fritters and fried dough can be found from one end of Italy to the other, as each locality celebrates the season.
In Florence, Cenci, shaped like “rags”, are a simple sweet dough, rolled thinly, deep fried and served with a dusting of powdered sugar. In the village of Certaldo, they are shaped into a circle, filled with pastry cream and folded into a half moon shape before frying, creating a sweet ravioli.
Frittelle di riso for Father’s Day | Ph. Sandro Nardoni
Frittelle di riso are one of my favorite desserts at anytime of the year. The lovely light rice fritters are also used to celebrate Father’s Day in Italy, which is March 19, St. Joseph’s Day.
I always try to go to the Sagra delle Frittelle in the tiny hamlet of Montefioralle, in the hills above Greve in Chianti, to watch the local men fry thousands of fritters in one of the largest pots I have seen.
Another sweet which I have not yet mastered myself is the Schiacchiata alla fiorentina, a lovely yellow cake, dusted with huge amounts of powdered sugar and decorated with a stenciled Giglio, symbol of Florence, on top. Some shops sell two versions, one simple, the other cut in half and filled with a Chantilly cream.I make cenci and frittelle, but buy my schiacchiata!
240 g or 2 1/2 cups flour
2 large eggs
20 g or 1 oz butter, softened
20 g or 1 oz granulated sugar
1 espresso cup of Vin Santo, marsala or milk
Pinch of salt
Zest of one lemon
Oil for frying ( I use extra virgin olive oil, but corn oil is fine)
Powdered sugar (icing sugar) for dusting.
Beat the softened butter with the sugar. Add the eggs one at a time, stirring until incorporated. Add the lemon zest and the liquid (Vin Santo). Add the flour. Mix well. The dough will be hard. Knead and when smooth, cover and let rest for one hour. Heat oil for frying. Roll out the dough as thin as possible, sometimes I use my pasta machine. Cut into 3 inch wide strips, cut a slit in the middle of the strip, leaving the ends attached. Deep fry when oil is hot. Cook until lightly golden. Remove to paper towel, let drain and serve dusted with powdered sugar.
Frittelle di riso (Rice Fritters)
400 gr or 2 cups short grain rice, Arborio
1 litre or 4 cups milk
4 tablespoons sugar
Peel of one lemon, grated (zest, only the yellow part)
1 ounce liqueur (sherry, brandy or amaretto)
80 gr or 3/4 cup flour
1 tablespoon baking powder (lievito in polvere)
Pinch of salt
3 eggs, separated
Bring the rice to a slow boil in the milk with sugar and lemon zest. Stir occasionally to avoid the rice sticking. When the rice is cooked, it will have absorbed all the milk.
Place the rice in large bowl, add the liqueur, egg yolks, flour, baking powder, and salt. Mix well and let cool. DO NOT REFRIGERATE. Whip the egg whites till stiff. Fold whites into the rice mixture. In a heavy pan, heat 3 inches of oil for frying. I prefer olive oil, but corn oil is fine. Drop the fritters by teaspoons into the hot oil. Fry quickly and remove when they are golden. Do not brown. Drain on paper towels and serve sprinkled with granulated sugar. They are best hot but can also be served cold or reheated. I like to add raisins soaked in brandy to the mixture, or tiny pieces of candied orange peel.