In one way, Carnival is just like Halloween: people dress in costumes and wear masques, then do parades, go to parties, costume contests, eat, drink and make merry. Except Carnival lasts about a week, usually the week before the beginning of Lent – the six weeks before Easter that used to be marked by fasting and other penitential practices within the Catholic religion.
Although I am sure some Catholics in Italy do observe Lent to some degree (maybe by not eating meat or sugar, depending on personal choice), none of the people I know do. In any case, most of them enjoy good food, but are also into eating healthy and in moderation all year round.
As for me, I cannot say or think of the word Lent without seeing a strict and restrained Alfred Molina gorging on chocolate in the window of the chocolaterie after denying himself for weeks in the movie Chocolat.
When I think of Carnevale, I think of Venice, I think of Rio de Janeiro and I recall memories from childhood and the beautiful costumes my brothers, cousins and I would wear to this big indoor party for children that always included a costume contest. One year I came in third at one event and first at another as my costume was a really beautiful and unique one called Princess of Siam. I remember it being made of gold fabric and with a really tall and awkward headdress that I had to balance carefully on my head. I could not have been more than five at the time, so I probably did not appreciate this as much as I did later, looking at the pictures.
What I cannot believe is how I have not yet been to Venice for Carnevale!!! Whaaaat?!!! It is on my bucket list though, so eventually I will make it there and force myself to deal with the crowds for the sake of my art.
By the way, there are amazing costume makers to be found in Venice. I am talking seriously fabulous stuff, custom made. That is another thing on my bucket list, because since those beautiful costumes as children, I have not worn or owned a decent one in years. If you are interested, leave me a message or send me an e-mail and I will give you the links I have found.
No celebration or party of such stature would be complete without traditional foods. In Italy, the most famous ones are frittelle (also called tortelli) and chiacchere (keeaakkaerae), made in slight variations depending on the region. They are similar, in as much as they are both types of dough that gets deep fried. But frittelle are a softer dough that gets fried in little dollops and puff up in the heat to hollow, tender bites. Chiacchere – which literally means chit-chat – are a lightly sweet dough that you roll out and cut into rectangles, triangles or diamond shapes with slits in the center, deep fry and dust in powder sugar, turning them into thin, crispy and crumbly treats. I like both, with a slight preference for frittelle, but only slight, which is one of the reasons why I chose to make them. The other is that I have not had them in years.
Both treats stir childhood memories, too. Usually my aunt Luciana would make the frittelle – and this is her recipe – and our then next door neighbor, Sideme, would make chiacchiere enough for an army and be generous in her sharing. Later on she also shared the recipe, which I have to go and dig out from wherever it is because hers were the best chiacchere ever!
FRITTELLE DI CARNEVALE – CARNIVAL FRITTERS
yields about 40-45 fritters
– 250 ml. (8.45 fl. oz.) water (just over 1 cup)
– 50 gr. (1.7 oz.) butter, cut in pieces
– pinch of salt
– 2 Tablespoons sugar
– either 50 gr. (1.76 oz.) powder sugar, or 1/2 cup caster (super fine) sugar
– 150 gr. (5.29 oz.) flour
– 3 eggs, lightly beaten
– finely grated peel of 1 lemon
– 1 liter (ca. 4.2 cups) oil for frying – I used sunflower oil because it can take high heat
The procedure is the same as when making pâté à choux for cream puffs or eclairs, except the dollops of dough get deep fried instead of baked.
1. Mix the grated lemon peel with the flour. In a medium saucepan bring the water, butter, salt and sugar to a simmer. As soon as it reaches boiling point, turn up the heat and pour in the flour all at once. Mix with a wooden spatula until a soft and smooth dough forms, let it dry for a minute or so and then remove from heat.
2. Transfer the dough to a glass or stainless steel bowl that has been previously warmed a little. Let the dough cool down a little, then add half the eggs, blending gently with an electric mixer or a whisk. Then add the rest of the eggs, blending until the batter is smooth, soft and elastic.
3. Heat the oil in a deep stainless steel pot. It is best if the oil only fills the pot half way. Using a spoon and a rubber spatula, drop small dollops of batter into the hot oil and fry until golden, turning as needed. The dollops will expand and puff up in the hot oil just as they do when baking in the oven. As they become ready, lift them out of the oil using a spider strainer and place on a cookie baking sheet (or large platter) covered with kitchen paper to absorb any excess oil. Repeat with the remaining batter.
4. Dust with powder sugar or roll in super fine sugar – which is what I did. Best eaten warm or at least freshly made.
What to do with the used oil: let it cool completely in the pot. Once cool, if the oil did not burn (as it shouldn’t if you handled the temperature well), you can use it again for something similar, that is, frying something sweet. Pour it back in the bottle(s) it came in using a funnel and a fine sieve to strain out the bits, then mark the bottle like I did: used once for fritters; so you will remember.
If you are ready to discard it, DO NOT pour it down the drain or the toilet. Health food stores and some grocery stores sell appropriate containers, which then get collected at recycling centers.
Do you celebrate Carnival where you live? Outside of Europe, the only places I know that celebrate it are New Orleans and Brazil. Oh, and I just found out that there is going to be a Carnevale Gala event at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco on Thursday, February 12th 2015.
If you do celebrate it, what is your favorite Carnival food? And what was your favorite costume? Did you ever win a contest? Have you ever been to the Carnival in Venice, or Rio, or New Orleans’ Mardi Gras?
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This article and recipe were originally posted on March 1, 2014 in my Food Journey blog which is now being integrated here.