I’ll get behind Halloween, Thanksgiving and every other crazy American holiday I can think of, but I have trouble getting excited about Italy’s very own festival of fun and frivolity – carnevale.
Maybe it’s because I don’t have any kids and therefore can’t use them as an excuse to dress up. When I was a kid, I was never allowed to celebrate Halloween, so now all I ever want to do is dress up in some ridiculous costume. Can someone please have a dress up party? Seriously, why does no one have dress up parties anymore?
Here in small town Southern Tuscany, carnevale is a really big thing. My mother-in-law has 18 years’ worth of photos of Giulio in costume that she always wants to show me. Since Giulio was a girly looking child, he made the most convincing Pippi Longstocking. RuPaul’’s Next Drag Superstar anyone?
The kids at school are crazy excited about it too, so they give me a 30-minute description of their costumes every time I ask. Naturally our town won’t be going Carnevale di Venezia levels of festivity, but we will most definitely have a little parade where the kids can dance down the main street covering anyone in reach with confetti and silly string.
Speaking of Carnevale di Venezia, I actually risked my neck and my wallet one year to go and was really disappointed! There was no one in costume, no music, no partying – just a really sad fashion show in Piazza San Marco. Maybe I got the day wrong or it was a bad year? It was really cold and pouring with rain, so maybe that had something to do with it? It’s hard channel Marie Antoinette and Casanova when the water is coming up to your knees. Still, I vowed never to return.
But back to chilly old Manciano. A couple of years ago, I volunteered at the local kindergarten and we made a very cute Winnie the Pooh float and dressed up as bumblebees. There’s no bumblebee costume for me this year (😢) so I’m drowning my sorrows in zeppole.
Zeppole are mini Italian doughnuts (or donuts?). Actually, they’re not as fatty, greasy or as decadent as American doughnuts. There’s no thick glaze or creamy filling. But before you turn away in disgust, there are sultanas! The least exciting of all the dried fruits, but trust me, these are delicious!
The recipe is actually my nonna’s. I’m not sure if she ever celebrated carnevale as a kid in Calabria. They were pre-WWII years and my grandmother was an orphan living the Cinderella story (sans Prince Charming), so probably not.
Her zeppole are ridiculously fluffy because she is the queen of yeasted dough. She just has to look at a bar of yeast and it starts to rise. I am not as adept, but I have noticed a huge difference since I started using fresh yeast. It’s what she uses and it’s so much more reliable than dried yeast. I find it rises better, faster and is much harder to kill if your water is a little too hot. Plus you don’t get such a strong yeast flavour in your finished bread, which is something I have been accused of by Giulio (aka self-proclaimed master baker) on many occasions. You can pick up fresh yeast at your local deli or gourmet supermarket… or just the normal supermarket if you live in country Tuscany.
My nonna doesn’t necessarily make these Italian doughnuts for carnevale, but they do have a version of them here in Tuscany. During the entire carnevale season (until February 14th), they like to have a huge bowl of these covered in caster sugar and ready for visiting guests. Kids love them and there is nothing more enjoyable than seeing little rock-star witches (this year’s must-have costume) with sticky fingers and mouths!
What is really great about this Italian doughnut recipe is you can tailor it to the season and to your tastes. I have infused the entire dough with an unnecessarily exaggerated amount of clementine zest. Clementines are in season in Tuscany. They’re gorgeously sweet (and cheap) and I can’t keep Giulio away from them. I had to hide a bunch for this recipe! In Australia, clementines were a mystery to me. Something you only heard Jamie Oliver mention in his Christmas specials. So I was surprised to find them at the local Saturday market. They’re sweeter then your traditional mandarin, but you can always substitute the latter.
So feel free to stick to my nonna’s traditional recipe and use sultanas and clementines for Italian doughnuts that will scream spring even if we’re in winter. Or substitute with chocolate chips, powdered coffee, cinnamon, walnuts, blueberries… whatever takes your fancy!
MINI ITALIAN CLEMENTINE DOUGHNUTS
20g fresh yeast (or 7.5g dry yeast)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup lukewarm water
4 cups plain (all-purpose) flour
1⁄2 cup caster (super fine) sugar, plus extra for dusting
3⁄4 cup sultanas
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon finely grated orange rind vegetable oil, for frying
caster (super fine) sugar, extra
Combine the yeast, olive oil and water in a bowl. Set aside in a warm place for 10 minutes or until bubbles appear on the surface.
Combine the remaining ingredients in a large bowl. Make a well in the centre and add the yeast mixture. Slowly add 1 cup of lukewarm water and mix until it comes together to form a sticky dough. Cover with a clean, damp cloth and set aside in a warm place for 45 minutes or until doubled in size.
Heat the oil in a large, deep saucepan over medium heat. With oiled hands, squeeze a handful of dough through your tightened fist to form a ball, then with an oiled tablespoon scoop the dough off your fist and drop into the hot oil. This method creates perfect balls, but you can just use an oiled tablespoon to scoop and drop if it’s easier.
Cook the ciambelli, in batches, for 1-2 minutes each side or until golden. Drain on a paper towel and dust with the extra sugar. Makes 60.