Carnival is to a Venetian what Halloween is to most people: the perfect occasion to wear fancy dresses, party all night, and eat a pile of sweet treats.
Many identify the Carnevale di Venezia with folks dressed in 18th-century masks who peacocking around St Mark’s Square. But that’s not all: there are parties for the youth of Veneto to let its hair down; all sorts of activities for children and families organised all over the city; and, most importantly, there is food.
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 Lent (the time of the year when Catholics are meant to give up all carnal temptations), Carnival is the perfect excuse to live life to the fullest before reverting to a more moderate lifestyle. Fasting and virtuous abstinence are just around the corner, so one might as well make the most of life before then.
Following the same spirit of excess, the traditional foods of the carnevale are some of the most decadent and scrumptious out there. Often sweet, coated in sugar, at times stuffed with custard and cream, they are almost always unmistakenly fried.
The main types of Venetian Carnival treats are frìtole (frittelle), paper-thin cròstoli (also called galàni), and bite-size favette (or castagnole). During Carnival time, all of these, in their many variants, populate the windows of pastry shops and bakeries of Veneto, luring passers-by into falling into temptation. In addition to store-bought treats, many families, particularly in the countryside, honour the local tradition by firing up the fryer at home.
My nonna is no exception. For years, no matter the weather, she would make a big batch of fritòle, crostoli and favette for the entire family to enjoy. And, among the three of them, my preference has always gone towards the cute, bite-size favette, not least because they are as moreish as a bowl of cherries. But also because their cakey core and crisp outside sets them apart from all other fried Carnival delights.
Nonna is generally jealous of her own recipes, but she agreed on sharing her lovely favette recipe with me, and I’m now sharing it with you. Here it is, in all its sugar-coated, fried glory.
Venetian Favette for Carnival
200g / 1 2/3 cups plain flour
60g / 1/4 cup caster sugar, plus more for dusting
8g / 1 tablespoon baking powder
Pinch of sea salt
Grated zest of 1 unwaxed lemon
2 medium eggs
40g / 2 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
15ml/ 1 tablespoon grappa or anise liqueur (optional)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Sunflower oil, for frying
In a large bowl, mix the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and lemon zest. Make a well in the centre and break the eggs into it. Add the butter (cut into small cubes), the liqueur (if using) and the vanilla, and stir everything to combine. Carrying on with your hands, knead the dough until you have a smooth, elastic, slightly sticky ball. Wrap it in cling film and let it rest for a few minutes.
While the dough is resting, heat the oil. Fill three-quarters of a deep, medium-sized skillet with oil. Place it over a low-medium heat and wait for the oil to reach the temperature of 180°C/350°F, which you can test by using a thermometre or by inserting the handle of a wooden spoon inside the oil: when you see small but fierce bubbles forming around the edge of the spoon, the oil is ready.
Next, divide the dough into five pieces of roughly the same size. Roll them out into ropes as thick as your thumb, then cut them in bits as big as your thumbnail. Roll each piece into a ball.
Fry the favette in batches of 8-10 until deeply golden all around. Drain them with a slotted spoon 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 the same day.
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