Religious celebrations in Italy seem to bring out the best in local cooks. Italians have very simple-to-make sweets, and during the Carnival season almost all of them are fried. Among these are castagnole, the recipe for which I share here; cenci (also known as frappe or bugie), shaped like ‘rags,’ are a straightforward sweet dough, rolled thinly, deep fried and served with a dusting of powdered sugar; and frittelle, light rice fritters that are also used to celebrate Father’s Day, which in Italy is celebrated on March 17, St. Joseph’s Day. (See my cenci and frittelle di riso recipes at theflr.net/carnivalrecipes.)
The recipe for castagnole, a country-style Carnival sweet, is one of the oldest recipes in Italian cooking, mentioned in an eighteenth-century recipe in Viterbo’s state archives. They are made all over Italy, including Liguria, Emilia-Romagna and Umbria. The name comes from the size and shape of the little sweet, which resembles a chestnut—castagna in Italian.
Quite simply, castagnole are round balls of fried dough. To my American palate, they are like little cake donuts. They can be rolled in granulated sugar or made richer and prettier by first dipping them in Alchermes, the blood-red Florentine liqueur, before the sugar coating: the ‘bath’ in the liqueur gives them a look of tiny peaches.
Plain or sugared, they would be fun dipped in limoncello or another Italian favorite, Strega, the bright yellow herb-based liqueur from Benevento.
In the Christian tradition, Carnival (the Latin root is carn, ‘meat’ + levare, ‘to remove’) is the period of feast (and frolic) before the austerity of Lent. So enjoy the fried sweets of Carnival now because there are six weeks of Lent before the Easter chocolates appear.
Finito Carnevale, finito amore
finito il far la pacchia da signore
finito il setacciar farina in fiore
finito il mangiare castagnole.
As Carnival finishes, so does love,
the fun is over,
no more sifting flour,
eating castagnole no more.
—old rhyme from the Marche region
Castagnole (chestnut-shaped cake donuts)
200g flour, preferably ‘00’
8 g baking powder
Grated zest of one lemon
Oil for frying
Place the flour, sugar and baking powder together in a large bowl. Create a well and add the butter and eggs and lemon zest. Begin beating the ingredients from the center and slowly incorporate the flour. Mix well until all the flour is absorbed and a thick dough is created.
Cover and let rest for 30 minutes.
Divide into four parts and roll each part out into a long cord. Cut each cord into chestnut-sized pieces.
Heat the oil for frying. Deep fry the dough until golden. Remove from the oil and place on a tray with paper towels. Let drain for 1 minute.
Quickly place in a bowl with the Alchermes (if using) and roll to lightly soak the balls. Remove from the Alchermes and place in a small paper bag with 1 cup of granulated sugar and shake to cover lightly with sugar.
They are best eaten warm, but can also be served at room temperature.