Recipes: Venetian Carnival Treats (Fritole, Crostoli, Favette)

Carnival is a time of year that still bares quite some relevance in the Italian calendar. Marked by moon cycles and culminating in the festivities of Mardi Gras, Carnival is a time in which transgression and opulence are not just allowed but embraced.

As a celebratory festivity, Carnival can be traced back to the Roman empire. However, it is in Venice that it found fertile soil, flourishing within the water walls of the Serenissima, and eventually gaining worldwide fame. It is no mystery that 18th century Venice was known for its decadent, lustful costumes. These were only amplified during Carnival, as masquerades and secret parties would take place all over the city.

At the core of the Venetian Carnival is a spirit of excess – of enjoyment of all sorts of mundane, sensual pleasures. Because it occurs right before the fasting and virtuous abstinence of Lent, Carnival is the perfect excuse to live life to the fullest before reverting to a more moderate lifestyle. For this very reason, the traditional foods of this time of the year are also extremely decadent – fried, sweet, and often laced with the lushest creams and dried fruits.

Every year in January and February, then, piles and piles of deep-fried, sugary doughnuts (frìtole) stuffed with all sorts of creamy filling occupy the windows of all bakeries and pastry shops across Venice. Often times, they are shouldered by trays of paper-thin, sugar-dusted cròstoli (or galani) and walnut-sized fried bites called favette (or castagnole). Together, these constitute the triptych of the Venetian Carnival treats.


Frìtole

 
 

The first notes of the presence of the frìtola in Venice date back to the 14th century. During Carnival, the alleys of city were dotted by the fritolèri – street vendors specialised in the art of the fried dough – who would tempt the many passers-by with their piping-hot, anise-scented doughnuts. The fritolèri were crucial figures in Renaissance Venice. Their importance grew and grew, until the frìtola became the official sweet of the Republic of Venice in the 1700s.

In their original and basic form, frìtole were and still are nothing more than spoonfuls of leavened, sweet dough fried in lard. Soft and airy, they’d be rolled in sugar while still hot and handed out pierced onto skewers so that people could eat them without burning or soiling their hands.

Although no fritolèri remain in Venice, this old-school version of frìtole, called sensa gnente (without filling), survives in local bakeries as much as in people’s kitchens. (Some Venetian institutions like Rosa Salva still make them with a hole in the middle, following a century-old tradition.) Alongside these, then, in almost all pastry shops one can now find larger, dark-brown fritòle filled with custard, zabaione, chantilly cream and even ricotta.

The tradition of making frìtole (the basic kind) at home for Mardi Gras is still very much alive in my family. It’s a tradition Grandma passed down to me alongside her recipe, which I have shared below. It sports grappa-scented raisins and crunchy pine-nuts, among other things, and it makes quite a large batch, so it’s definitely good for sharing.


Frìtole Sensa Gnente (Plain Venetian Carnival Doughnuts)

100 g raisins

120 ml / 1/2 cup grappa
500 g plain flour, sifted

Pinch of salt

7 g active dry yeast

80 g caster sugar
Grated zest of 1 unwaxed lemon

2 large eggs
50 g pine nuts

50 g candied citrus peel (optional)

250 ml milk, lukewarm

Sunflower oil, for frying

Icing sugar, for dusting


Soak the raisins in grappa and leave them to plump up.

In a large bowl, combine flour, sugar, salt, yeast and lemon zest. Make a well and break the eggs in its centre. Using a fork, begin to beat them while incorporating a bit of the flour. Add the pine nuts, candied citrus peel (if using) and the raisins with their soaking liquid. Pour in the milk, too. Stir with a wooden spoon until it all comes together into a sticky dough. Cover the bowl with a clean tea towel and leave to rise in a warm place for about 2 hours, or until doubled in size and very bubbly on the surface.

Next, fill three-quarters of a high-edged skillet with sunflower oil. Set it over a medium heat and bring the oil to 180°C/350°F. Once hot, take a dollop of dough as big as a walnut and give it a round-ish shape using two tablespoons; then, slide it into the hot oil. Fry in batches of 5-6 until dark brown all around. Drain with a slotted spoon and transfer to a large plate lined with paper towels.

Leave to cool before dusting them with icing sugar. Eat right away – they are best freshly made.

Crostoli or Galani

 
 

The big Venetian Carnival fry-up wouldn’t be complete without a tray of crostoli or galani. These paper-thin fried sheets of sweetened dough are bound to this yearly recurrence as the rest of the traditional sweets. Perhaps even more so, since their origin, which dates back to the Roman Empire, is as old as Carnival itself.

The concept is not a Venetian prerogative. In fact, you’ll find them all over Italy, only under different names: cenci in Tuscany, frappe in Central Italy, bugie in Piedmont, chiacchiere in Lombardy and so on. Ingredients vary slightly, as do shapes, but all in all, similarities outnumber the differences.

In Veneto, crostoli and galani share the same recipe, but are geographically divided by a strip of water – the Venetian lagoon. Crostoli are typical of the Venetian inland. They are often cut into rectangles that are friable yet substantial. Galani, on the other hand, belong to the city of Venice alone. They are rolled so thin that they are almost see-through, then cut into long, twisted ribbons that are as moorish as they are fragile.

Being a Venetian of the inland myself, I grew up eating crostoli rather than galani. Grandma was the one in charge of making them. She would roll the dough with a huge rolling pin – the same she’d use for tagliatelle. Unlike her, I use a pasta machine to roll the dough as thinly as possible, then cut it into irregular strips. The flavour doesn’t change but they are quicker to make. If you want them neat, however, you can use a pastry wheel to cut them straight and give them some pretty frilly edges.


Crostoli

500 g plain flour, sifted, plus more for rolling the dough
3 eggs plus 2 yolks
80 g caster sugar
Pinch of sea salt
Grated zest of 1 unwaxed lemon
30 g unsalted butter, melted
45 ml grappa
Sunflower oil, for frying
Icing sugar, for dusting

On a working surface, make a well and break the eggs in its centre. Add the yolks. Add the sugar, salt, lemon zest, melted butter and grappa. Using a fork, begin to whisk the eggs with the rest of the ingredients while slowly incorporating the flour.

Carry on kneading the dough with your hands until it comes together into a smooth, even ball (it should bounce back when gently pressed with a finger). Wrap the dough in cling film and leave it to rest for 1 hour.

Next, divide the dough into 8 portions and roll them out to thin sheets using a pasta machine (or a rolling pin), dusting them with flour at every passage. Cut the strips of dough into rectangles of about 15x10cm.

Fill three-quarters of a high-edged skillet with sunflower oil and set it over a medium heat. When the oil is hot (180°C/350°F), slide in a first batch of crostoli and fry them until deep-golden all around, about 3 minutes. Drain them with a slotted spoon and transfer them to a plate lined with paper towels.

Let the crostoli cool, then dust them with icing sugar and eat them right away or within a few hours.


Favette or Castagnole

 
 

Favette (fava beans; also called castagnole – little chestnuts) are perhaps the least known of the Venetian Carnival classics, but they are by no means less exciting. Small in size, they have a soft, cake-like texture and a crisp outer shell and a lovely aromatic flavour that makes them as moreish as cherries. And although they can be easily found in bakeries and pastry shops (either plain or stuffed with custard), they are fairly simple to make at home.

I’m sharing, once more, a family recipe, of the kind we have been using for as long as I can remember, and possibly my favourite among the three on this page. Here it is, in all its sugar-coated, fried glory.

Favette

200 g plain flour, sifted
60 g caster sugar, plus more for rolling
1 tablespoon baking powder
Pinch of sea salt
Grated zest of 1 unwaxed lemon
2 eggs
40 g unsalted butter, at room temperature, diced
1 tablespoon anise liqueur (optional)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Sunflower oil, for frying

Mix the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and lemon zest in a large bowl. Make a well and break the eggs in its centre. Add the butter, anise liqueur (if using) and vanilla. Stir with a wooden spoon until roughly combined.

Next, knead the dough until you have a smooth, elastic, slightly sticky ball. Wrap it in cling film and let it rest for 1 hour.

Fill three-quarters of a high-edged skillet with sunflower oil. Place it over a medium heat and wait for the oil to come to temperature (180°C/350°).

Divide the dough into five equal portions. Roll out each portion into long ropes (about 1-cm thick), then cut them into thumb-size bits. Roll each bit into a ball (favetta) in between your palms.

Fry the favette in batches until crisp and deeply golden all around, about 4 minutes. Drain them and transfer them to a plate lined with paper towels.

Leave them to cool slightly, then roll them in caster sugar and eat them as soon as you finish or within a few hours.