I knew that sooner or later I’d have to talk about Carnival. As I have already mentioned, Carnival parades, more or less successful fancy dresses, and colourful confetti that will sneak into your clothes worse than the sea sand into your swimming costumes, well, they are really not my cup of tea. Carnival is the last obstacle before spring and I am really looking forward to the day when the snow will finally melt, giving way to warmer temperatures.
It would be unfair, though, to affirm that I do not like Carnival as a whole.
Actually, on second thought, there is something I appreciate. First thing, I have fond memories of the Carnival tales my teacher used to tell us during winter days at the elementary school, with that fun and irreverent traditional masks: Columbine, Harlequin, Punchinello, Pantaloon and Balanzone, and our Stenterello from Florence… I still love their vintage and romantic allure.
Then there are the Carnival sweet treats.
Now we are talking business, Carnival sweets are a valid reason to appreciate this time of the year. In Tuscany, during Carnival days, we traditionally eat cenci (literally rugs, fried dough) and rice fritters, and I really wouldn’t be able to choose which one I prefer. This year, feeling brave, I sat mum and grandma at a table with two significant Tuscan cookbooks, Pellegrino Artusi and Giovanni Righi Parenti, to scribble down two valid recipes for our traditional Carnival sweet treats, in order to give grams and steps to our a little bit of this and a little bit of that procedure.
Cenci, Tuscan Carnival fried dough
Working on the cenci recipe, I took notes from Artusi’s 453. Cenci recipe for what regards ingredients quantities and from Giovanni Righi Parenti’s recipe for flavours and aromas, with the addition of orange zest and vin santo.
First with my grandma and then on Sunday afternoon with mum, we tried to give to the cenci the traditional crispness that makes them melt in your mouth and the fruity orange scent that mum remembered from her childhood.
A teaspoon of baking soda will help the cenci to be light and develop those airy bubbles on the surface, a sign that you kneaded the dough, rolled it out, and fried cenci perfectly, or, at least, it’s like this according to my parents’ childhood memories!
Anyway, this is the recipe of our family Carnival cenci, but I’m pretty sure that every family in Italy has its own secret recipe, along with a special and different name for this carnival fried dough, since they are a cross-cultural element. My friend Judy told me that her Russian grandmother used to make similar sweet treats for Carnival, adding a dash of vodka to make them light as a feather!
Cenci - Tuscan Carnival fried dough
- 250 g (2 cups) plain flour
- 20 g (1 1/3 tbsp) butter, melted
- 20 g (1 1/3 tbsp) sugar
- 2 eggs
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 orange, zest grated
- 1 lemon, zest grated
- 1 pinch salt
- 2 tablespoons vin santo, or vodka, grappa, brandy
- 1 l (4 cups) vegetable oil for deep frying
- more sugar to sprinkle the cenci, once fried
- Pour the flour onto a wooden pastry board or on a large working surface, make a well in the centre and add all the other ingredients.
- Knead all the ingredients with your hands, as if to make homemade pasta. Knead it at least 10 minutes, until the dough becomes very elastic and smooth, and it no longer sticks to your hands. Let the dough rest for about 30 minutes, wrapped in a kitchen towel.
- Roll out the dough with a rolling pin or with the pasta machine to make long and paper-thin sheets of pasta, about 1 or 2 mm thick, so that the cenci will be feather-light when fried. Use a tiny amount of flour to help to roll out the dough, but try to dust it off or shake it off from the cenci, because it will be the first thing to burn in the hot frying oil, giving an unpleasant burnt flour taste to our cenci.
- Cut the pasta sheets with a knife or a wheel in strips about a span long and 3 inches in width.
- Heat the vegetable oil in a large pan and when it reaches 180°C deep fry the cenci. If you don't have a cooking thermometer, use some dough scraps to check when the oil is ready: dip a scrap in the oil. It will be hot enough when many tiny bubbles immediately surround the piece of dough.
- Fry the cenci in batches for about 30 seconds per side, checking them often and turning them with frying tongs.
- Carefully remove the cenci from the oil, drain them for a few minutes on a dish lined with kitchen paper, and then dust them with sugar. They are delicious warm, but you will recognize all the flavours and aromas just when cold!