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.
These tortelli are, in fact, a bit of a joke in our family. No one really likes them and, admittedly, they are not nonna‘s strongest recipe. They may suit old-school palates but don’t go down all too well with my brother’s and mine. Mum obliges because she’s gracious and might actually enjoy having one or two, but the rest (about thirty of them, weighing 150g each) is generally left to Dad. He is also responsible for sending back any comments and compliments to the cook.
Year after year, the exchange plays along these lines:
Aunt/Nonna: ‘How were the tortelli?’
Dad: ‘Very good, thank you. Maybe next year you should make less…?’
A/N: ‘Why? Didn’t you like them? Did the kids like them?’
A/N: ‘They didn’t like them. Did they like the other stuff? The frittelle, did they like the frittelle?’
D: ‘Yes, yes. Just, maybe, next year…make less. OK?’
Will she ever make less? I doubt it.
But unlike her tortelli, nonna‘s frittelle – Venetian doughnuts of sorts – have always been good: bite size, pillowy, and with a subtle hint of anise that gave them depth and, dare I say, freshness – can something fried be fresh? On Fat Tuesday (or Mardi Gras or otherwise), she has always fried mountains, literally, then divided them into bowls, picked up the phone and told whoever wanted them that they were ready for pick up. She never delivered.
Her frittelle had the unmistakable look and feel of a home-made product: small, golden, without filling, they were very different from those you’d find in bakeries and pastry shops. If you enter a pasticceria in Veneto around Carnival time, you’ll see what I’m talking about. These type of frittelle are huge and with a dark brown rather than golden complexion. You might find them sensa gnente (without filling), their crumb studded with raisins and pine nuts, or else stuffed with chantilly cream, custard, zabaione, or even chocolate. Some
Some Venetian institutions like Rosa Salva still make them with the hole in the middle (col buso, in local slang). They might come rolled in crunchy or powdered sugar; wrapped in a pretty printed paper or just handed to you with a thin napkin. Either way, they’ll be scrumptious. For us, buying frittelle was all about indulging in the decadent creaminess of their filling; but we still loved Grandma’s for their uncomplicated nature, and for being there, waiting for us at home to feast on Mardi Gras.
Venetian Frittelle for Carnival
100 g / 2/3 cup raisins
120 ml / 1/2 cup grappa, eau de vie or anise liqueur
500 g / 3 2/3 cups plain flour, sifted
Pinch of salt
15 g / 1 tablespoon active dry yeast
80 g / 1/3 cup caster sugar, plus more for dusting
Grated zest of 1 unwaxed lemon
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
50 g / 1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
50 g / 1/3 cup candied citrus peel (optional)
240 ml / 1 cup whole milk, lukewarm
Sunflower oil, for frying
Icing sugar, for dusting
Soak the raisins in grappa and leave to plump up.
In a large bowl, combine flour, sugar, salt, yeast and lemon zest. Make a well in the centre and break in the eggs, then, using a fork, start to incorporate them into the flour. Add the pine nuts, candied citrus peel (if using) and the raisins with their soaking liquid. Pour in the milk, too, and stir with a wooden spoon until it all comes together into a sticky dough. Cover with a clean tea towel and leave to rise in a warm place for about 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or until doubled in size and very bubbly on the surface.
Next, heat the oil in a deep, medium-sized skillet over a low-medium heat. Once hot (180°C/350°F), grab two tablespoons and use them to shape your frittelle. Take a dollop of dough as big as a walnut and give it a round-ish shape using both spoons, then slip it into the hot oil. Repeat in batches, frying about 5-6 frittelle at the time. Fry them on both sides until dark brown all around. Drain with a slotted spoon and transfer them to a large plate lined with absorbent paper towels.
Leave the frittelle to cool before dusting them with icing sugar. They are best enjoyed freshly made.