Recipe for Italian Carnival Castagnole
How to Make One of Italy’s Traditional Carnevale Treats
In Italy, most holidays and celebrations warrant their own dish or delicacy which is prepared especially for the time of year. Carnival time is no exception and the month of February sees Rome coated in sugar as the city’s bakeries and pasticcerie are piled high with cream-packed pastries and deliciously decadent dolci.
The annual tradition of carnival begins in January and culminates on Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras). Historically this was a time to let loose before the strict restrictions of Lent, so wild parties, raucous processions, and extravagant celebrations would take place all over town. The word ‘carnival’ (‘carnevale’ in Italian) is derived from the Latin words carnem (meat) and levare (remove), indicating that this was a time for excess and eating luxuriously before a period of abstinence.
Nowadays Roman carnevale celebrations are mainly centered around children who dress up in costume on Sundays and scatter confetti around their local piazza. However, adults do still join in with some carnival customs, albeit in a less rowdy fashion, preferring to mark the occasion in a gastronomic way by preparing and eating the traditional sweets of the period which include bignè (choux pastry buns often filled with cream custard), frappe (strips of sweet pasty deep-fried and coated in confectioner’s sugar), and these indulgent castagnole (small, fried dough balls covered in sugar), so-called because their appearance recalls that of castagne, or chestnuts.
Castagnole are easy to make and, as they are best eaten freshly fried with a crispy exterior, making them at home means you can devour them while still warm.
125 g sugar
250 g plain flour
2 egg yolks
50 g butter, melted
8 g baking powder
50 ml whole milk
2 tbsp Marsala wine
Zest of half a lemon
Pinch of salt
1 lt vegetable oil, for frying
Caster sugar, to serve
Mix the sugar and lemon zest together in a bowl.
Place the flour on a work surface and make a well in the center. Put the sugar and lemon zest mixture into the well along with the baking powder and a pinch of salt.
Beat the eggs and egg yolks and pour into the center of the well, add the melted butter, Marsala wine, and milk then use a fork to gradually drag the flour from the outside inwards into the liquid. Once the mixture begins to come together, use your hands to knead the dough until it becomes smooth. If the dough is too dry add a splash of milk, if it is too wet sprinkle in some more flour.
Split the dough into 5 parts then roll each one into a log about 2 cm wide. Cut the dough into 2 cm long pieces then use your hands to roll each piece into a small ball. Put them onto a floured tray while you prepare the rest.
Once the balls are prepared and you are ready to cook them, heat the oil in a large pan until it is just boiling (you can test that it is hot enough by putting a little piece of the dough into the oil). Fry the dough balls in batches for about 2-3 minutes, the outside should be golden and the mixture inside should be light and fluffy.
Use a slotted spoon to remove the castagnole from the pan, drain them on a kitchen towel to remove the excess oil, then roll them in caster sugar before serving while still warm.