For the first time this year, nonna decided not to whip up the traditional Carnival fry up. The daughters and sons, nieces and nephews and the whole extended family were left without her signature frittelle, favette and crostoli. Empty handed, they were all forced to buy them from the bakery instead.
The news popped up on my phone screen like breaking news. Outrage! How could this ever happen? I was told that, at the young age of 95, she was feeling too tired to roll doughs and stand in front of the frying pan for long hours. To make up for the loss, Aunt, who lives with her, picked up on the duty of making a small batch of fried tortelli stuffed with pumpkin and amaretti – another classic concoction in my family – in the attempt to still celebrate Carnival. This, of course, not without nonna’s vigilant surveillance. It was reported that she did very well indeed.
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.
I have just recently come to terms with the fact that, for the biggest part of my life, I missed out on one of the most delicious things nature has to offer: honey. Unlike, say, beetroot, which I continue to dislike no matter how much I try to masquerade it under thick layers of horseradish-injected dressings or to blend it into chocolate cake (I just can’t get past the very earthy flavour), my feelings towards honey have changed with me. They grew as I grew, from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, increasing and amplifying at every stage, spreading like a spoonful of oil on a smooth surface, slowly, unavoidably. And so, I gradually went from being the kid who couldn’t stomach a drop of it to the grown-up addict who eats her weight in liquid sugar, jar after jar after jar.
After years of refusal, I’m now making up for lost time by keeping my pantry well-stocked and varied at all times. And although I like to keep things interesting by trying new flavours and brands, I always tend to go back to the same, old trusted ones.
Orange blossom and acacia honey are my all-time favourites. I use them for drizzling, normally on toast, and often over a layer of fresh ricotta, but also over yoghurt, and porridge and other creamy things that can benefit from some sweetness. Saline honey from seaside locations (like miele di barena from the Venetian lagoon, still produced on the island of Sant’Erasmo) is my flavour of choice for dressings and marinades, either for mellowing down the bitter bite of radicchio or for glazing a roasted chicken. And then, citrus, chestnut and prairie honey I find wonderful to bake with – the former to fortify the freshness of a lemon cake; the second to give depth to sweet breads and fruit loaves; and the latter for everything in between.
Baking with honey is something I came to late in life, but that I’m keen to explore with dedication from now on. What I learnt so far is that it doesn’t work with everything – that it can’t replace sugar every time. But whatever it goes with it turns into a wonderfully floral affair, powerful and yet discreet, sweet but subtle. A cake made with honey will be a little bit denser than your usual cake, but by no means will it be heavy. Its crumb will be close, but the texture will be tender. The batter will take an unfamiliar amount of liquid – less than you’d normally use – but never will this lead to a dry result. In fact, quite the opposite: it’ll be moist (that dreaded word we are told to avoid); and it will be moreish, and marvellous.
In these quiet days after Christmas and New Year, after the excitement of the holidays has subdued, after the feasts and the family, the chatter and the clinking of chalices, I revert to soup – my safe harbour, my antidote against excess. Soup seems like a good metaphor for these first days of 2017: unshouty, unshowy, soothing. The same could be said for my kitchen windows, which, like my thoughts, have often been fogged, steamy, and heavy with condensation. Perhaps because of this, soup is all I want to eat. And, consequently, it’s all I want to talk about. So there, let’s talk about it.
‘There should be soup all the time, but especially in the winter.’
So writes the wonderful Molly O’Neill in one of her most touching pieces of prose. It’s almost as if she was spying on me; as if she’d drawn a circle on that fogged up window to peek inside my kitchen, and inside my head. Because, you see, I happen to be of Molly’s advice. In January, especially in January, when days are still so dreadfully short, soup should be set on the table often, if not daily, to soothe and comfort. It should preferably be very hot, with vapours coming up in swirls, steaming your face, unplugging your nose and fizzing up your hair. It should, therefore, demand patience. Yes, patience is key: it makes the first spoonful all the more enjoyable.
I spent two weeks at home in Veneto in late October and, in retrospect, it seems to me as if all I did was baking. I arrived the day after my birthday (I’ve officially entered the last year of my twenties) and kicked off all celebrations by firing off the oven. Then, a week later came Mum’s birthday, and with it came more cake. Nothing fancy, you see; nothing whose sight had people going ‘oooh, and ‘aah’, and take their phones out of their coat to snap a photo. No, nothing of the like. In both cases, all I produced was a rather unassuming number; minimal cake affairs that could come together easily, and with barely any washing up.
Practicalities aside, the truth is that neither Mum nor I have much of a sweet tooth. We like cakes, but multi-layer frosted cakes are very much lost on us. Our preference goes towards crumbly fruit tarts and rustic cakes that are possibly not too sugary. Which is why our birthday cakes often look just like any other cake we’d bake throughout the year…only, with sparklers on top.
Incidentally, both birthday cakes happened to have ground almonds at their core. One was an apple frangipane tart (more of which in a future post). The other (this one), a dense flourless white chocolate cake scented with citrus zest. That in both cases I reached out for the jar of almonds might as well be a coincidence. More likely, though, it’s a cake genre that just appeals to me and I’m instinctually drawn to. I might just as well blame it on my Venetian genes.