There was a time when I dressed up like Cleopatra. My mum made me a bob wig with black silk, and I had a fake snake bouncing out of my headband. One other, I was Esmeralda, which I was pretty proud of if those ankle bracelets hadn’t been so hard to deal with. Year after year, Carnival was honoured as a Venetian should do, with disguises, games, and tons of food.
Growing up, I dropped the costumes and embraced the best of the Venetian Carnival, consisting of those crazy, all-night parties taking place at Biennale or Tronchetto on the Saturday before Fat Tuesday. Most people identify the heart of Carnevale di Venezia with those Eighteen Century masks parading around St Mark’s square. Sure, it is a quite fascinating tradition that keeps in business mask artisans and costume hire businesses, and it is great entertaining for tourists and families; but for a college student growing up nearby, taking pictures of masks wasn’t all that fun anymore. The main attraction was the cheap booze at the closest Bacaro, the international crowd around Rialto, the pop-up DJ-sets and the impromptu dances in the street, right before going to the above-mentioned party. All this could take place anytime in February, depending on the lunar calendar, but surely enough, it would have been right before that super difficult linguistics or economics exams. Carnival calendar and academic calendar have never been synced. Someone should think about these things.
The spirit of the Venetian Carnival, a bit like everywhere else, is an invitation to exceed and enjoy the pleasures of the senses. And it is precisely in these last days before Lent that life was supposed to be enjoyed to its fullest. Fasting and virtuous abstinence were just around the corner. One of the senses being taste, the food was kept in the highest consideration this time of the year, especially in the form of sweet treats. And to make it even more sinful, these sweet treats were all, unmistakenly fried.
As far as I can remember, grandma has always honoured this recurrence. She wouldn’t do it in the main house, in the main kitchen, as it would have tainted the house with the smell of fried food. The kitchen downstairs, the old kitchen, was instead the appropriate place for cooking, baking, roasting and frying enough food to feed the whole village. And before then, when my family used to live downstairs, she would do it outside, in the casona (barn), with the wood fire kitchen. What a woman.
The three types of Carnival treats she would do correspond pretty much with the classic Venetian dolci di carnevale: frìtole (frittelle), cròstoli (also called galàni), and favette (or castagnole). As with anything, she had developed her own personal recipe, good for all three of them. It is probably quite different from the authentic frìtola venexiana, which in the Eighteen century was the official sweet of the Serenissima Repubblica di Venezia. Frìtole were made in the street by frìtoleri, artisans of the fried dough, using big skillets on a tripod over open fire. They would fry these balls of yeasted dough made of flour, eggs, sugar and dried fruit (pine nuts and raisins) in lard, which was abundant in winter, and sell them still warm to the passers-by. Today frìtoleri don’t exist anymore, but the fritole still populate the windows of all Venetian pastry shops, plain or stuffed with custard or chocolate. As for crostoli or galani, they are thin layers of sweet fried dough covered in sugar, popular in other regions, too, with different names (cenci, chiacchiere etc.). Finally, castagnole or favette are smalled balls of dough levened with baking powder instead of yeast, with no dried fruit added and less spongy than frìtole.
Grandma’s fritòle didn’t include pine nuts, and they had baking powder instead of yeast. In the past, she used to fry them in lard, too, but with the advent of modernity, she started to use mixed seed oil. She would make crostoli and favette alongside frìtole, as part of a big carnival fry. I have always been impressed by the amount of dough that 90-ish-year-old woman could master, shape, make thin and deep fry. She would make enough for the whole family, and the portion size is not what we would consider reasonable. Memories of myself, walking home from her house with bags full of fried, still warm sweets date back to childhood and stop only in recent times.
Once home, we all couldn’t wait to unwrap those well-done packages made of newspaper pages and disclose those golden treasures shining with crystals of sugar. It is shared knowledge that fried things should be eaten as quick as possible before they get soggy. And so, with the excuse of Fat Tuesday, we would eat as many as we could, with tea, in the late afternoon, been allowed to skip dinner in favor of one more crostolo.
I am happy to say that I have the super exclusive grandma’s recipe for favette to share. However, I also have a confession: what you see in the photos is actually the baked version of the recipe. Why? Surely not for the fat content –I cleaned many trays of GraNdma’s fried goodies in the past. But my apartment is tiny and without a frying machine, I just can’t do it. What I can say, though, is that if you have my same problem, you can try to bake them, too. They are still good enough to be already finished.
Favette di Carnevale
Granulated sugar or icing sugar for dusting
Mix everything and add flour little by little, kneading the dough, until you can form a ball that holds together without being too solid –a bit sticky is fine. Grab a piece of dough at a time and roll it like a long sausage on a surface dusted with flour. Cut out small pieces of dough with a sharp knife and deep fry them in hot oil until deeply golden. Fry only a few favette at a time, remove them and let them cool on a paper towel to absorb the excess of oil. Repeat until you have finished your dough. When all the favette are completely cold, roll them in granulated sugar or icing sugar.
If you’d rather bake them instead, proceed the same way except place the pieces of dough on a baking sheet lined with parchment (use a spoon to help shape the dough into balls) and bake for about 15 minutes in the oven at 180°C (350F).