I moved from Mestre, a town near Venice, to Washington, DC ten years ago with a lot of excitement and expectation about my new life. However, one nagging feeling tapped me on the shoulder even then: I knew that I would have seriously missed my beloved Carnevale, in my opinion the best celebration the city of Venice has to offer. Ten years later, I have two young children I want to raise bilingual and bicultural, so I decided that in those years we cannot travel home, we would at least celebrate Venice Carnival style. It will involve some homemade masks and A LOT of oil for frying.
What is Carnevale, anyway?
Carnevale is an ancient celebration that is a tradition in many countries. It is mostly celebrated the week before the beginning of Lent, but Venetian people start celebrating weeks in advance with parties for all ages. The first official Venice Carnival happened in 1296, but there is evidence it was celebrated even 200 years before that. At that time Carnevale was the only time of the year when the aristocracy “allowed” the commoners to mingle among them as equals with all disguised in masks and costumes. It was a time of unbridled debauchery before the strict requirements of Lent.
How is Carnevale celebrated in Venice?
During Carnevale, the city of Venice becomes animated with people wearing costumes and masks of all kinds: from the beautiful ornate costumes paying homage to the 1700s, to simpler masks inspired by the characters of La Commedia dell’Arte, to the more modern costumes about anything and everything you can imagine.
How do kids celebrate Carnival?
Needless to say Venetian kids LOVE Carnival. I have the best memories of being a little girl and choosing a costume to wear during the weekend in the town square or on an afternoon in Piazza San Marco (notice that you would wear your costume multiple times!). If you celebrated your birthday during Carnival, then your birthday party would automatically become a costume party, which you can imagine is the most desirable party a child can go to. During Carnival outings, children throw confetti and serpentine throws everywhere and are handed little decorated masks at every opportunity. BUT their favorite thing of all has to be the amazing sweets that are typical of Carnevale in Venice.
OK, we want to know about the Carnival sweets.
Great! That happens to be my favorite subject of conversation. Well, there are three traditional sweets for Carnival: frittelle, galani, and castagnole. Venetians make them at home occasionally, but mostly buy them at the many amazing pasticcerie (pastry shops) in the whole Veneto region.
Castagnole can be described as small, fried round cookies. They are delicious (and my oldest is completely obsessed with them), but somehow they always overshadowed by the other two.
Galani are delicious, paper-thin rectangles of lightly-sweetened dough (spiked with a little Grappa), fried for a few seconds to a delicate pastry that crumbles in your mouth. Believe me, a tray of Galani is a glorious thing to behold.
Frittelle are fried dough (think doughnut, but don’t) made with raisins and pine nuts (the original Venetian fritoe) and sometimes filled with custard or zabaione. They are the ultimate Venetian treat, and kids go NUTS when Frittelle are around.
Unfortunately for me and for those of you who don’t live in Venice or in its surroundings, these treats are almost impossible to purchase (I’m keeping “almost” as positive visualization). So, if you want to try to make at least one of them, here is a tried and tested recipe for Frittelle. I made a batch today, and three hours later they were already gone. Buon Carnevale!
FRITTELLE DI CARNEVALE
Makes 20–25 frittelle
- 1 ¼ cups water
- pinch of salt
- 4 tbsp unsalted butter
- 2 tbsp sugar
- 1 ½ cups flour
- 6 eggs
- orange rind (grated)
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- ½ cup raisins
- ¼ pine nuts
- oil for frying
- granulated or powdered sugar for coating
- Place water, butter, salt, and sugar in a small pan and bring to a boil.
- Add all the flour all at once and stir vigorously until the mixture pulls away from the sides of the pan to form a ball. This takes less than a minute.
- Let the dough cool, then add one egg at a time. Make sure each egg is incorporated into the dough before adding another one. (I’d use a electric mixer here, if possible. Unless you enjoy the arm workout, of course.)
- Mix in the the rest of the ingredients.
- Heat oil to 370 degrees and fry the dough in small balls (use two spoons) for 5–6 minutes, or until golden brown and cooked throughout.
- Sprinkle the frittelle with either granulated or powdered sugar and fill with custard or zabaione. You can check this recipe for Pastry Cream by Lidia Bastianich (I haven’t tried this particular recipe, but I’d trust this woman with my life).