Carnevale: Strufoli and Other Pleasures

February 27, 2012 / Food & Wine
Umbria
Carnevale festivities tie to celebrations of over two thousand years ago, the Roman Saturnali latini, days of a permitted transgression of usual rules and regulations – a moment of illicit abandon when citizens could take on completely different social roles and dress (i.e., the costumes of later Carnevale celebrations).

During the Christian era, the Roman rituals were transformed and in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the dressing up in costume – indicating the taking on of a different social role – reached maximum splendor in the Carnevale festivities of Florence, Rome and Venice. Elegantly costumed figures rode through the piazzas on carri allegorici infioriti (floats decorated with flowers.) Nowadays, on the last two Sundays of Carnevale, Umbrian town piazzas fill with children in costumes and in Sant’Eraclio (Foligno), Guardea (near Orvieto), and Montecastrilli (Todi area), fanciful carri allegorici add to the festive spirit.

On Saturday nights during Carnevale, dance halls in the rural areas fill up as couples of all ages swirl around the dance floor in waltz, fox trot, mazurka, tango and polka to live orchestra music. In the 1970’s here in Umbria, weekend dancing during Carnevale took place in the largest farmhouse kitchen or in a stall or in storeroom or in a garage. Rural neighbors got together and chipped in to hire an accordian player to provide music. The farmwomen came bearing plates of the traditional sweets, frappe, castagnole or strufoli (recipe below).

Nowadays, these traditional sweets fill the windows of Umbrian bakeries throughout Carnevale but our local farmwomen prefer the strufoli they still make on their woodstoves.

Peppa likes to douse hers with alchermes, a sweet red liqueur of rosewater and spices, originating in Persia. Giuseppa drizzles honey on the strufoli she makes for her husband, Paolo – before they head out for a Saturday night of ballroom dancing.

Our farm neighbor Marino shared with me a memory of a Carnevale dancing evening years ago. He was about eighteen, had put on his best clothes and new shoes and was heading quickly over to a neighboring farm for dancing (in the huge kitchen), eager to waltz with the young Chiarina (who would one day be his wife). Happy voices and accordian music drifted out of the kitchen window, but Marino stopped at the bottom of the farmhouse steps, hands in his pocket, fingering the coins, not sure he had enough for his contribution to the accordian player. He had about twenty-five cents. He turned around and went home, not wishing to risk making una brutta figura.

Strufoli
Ingredients:

8 eggs
8 T of milk
8 T of extra-virgin olive oil
8T of sugar
16 T of flour
1 glass of mistral (an anise liqueur) or rum
grated peel of one lemon
1 t. baking powder
vanilla (optional)
honey
alchermes (a red liqueur of Persian origin of spices, rosewater, anice) – if you cannot find, try substituting with Marsala)

Mix together – con energia! – all ingredients except honey and alchermes until a well-mixed batter is formed. Add flour as needed – or additional milk, if required. Let rest an hour. Put enough sunflower seed or other vegetable oil in saucepan for frying. Drop tablespoonfuls of the batter into boiling oil. Remove when each strufolo is golden, placing on paper towel so as to absorb the oil.
When all the strufoli have been fried, drip honey over them or splash with alchermes.

Note: Years ago, pig lard was used for frying, ie, an animal fat, thus making the strufoli not suitable for consumption after the beginning of Lent.
A tip for frying: keep flame low as frying starts, raising the heat gradually and reaching maximum heat just before removing the strufoli from the oil.

Anne Robichaud

by Anne Robichaud

An authorized Umbrian tour guide, Anne and her husband Pino worked the land for many years in the 1970’s so rural life, rural people, rural cuisine are una passione for her. See Umbria from “the inside”: join her May 2017 ten-day tour centered on discovering Umbria, Anne’s Umbria.

See www.annesitaly.com for more on her Umbria tours. Do see www.stayassisi.com for news on the Assisi apartment – and Assisi countryside guest house – she and Pino now rent out.

Anne writes frequently on Umbria and other areas of Italy. Read about her annual U.S. Feb/Mar cooking classes and lectures, as well as her numerous Italy insights on her blog.

14 Responses to “Carnevale: Strufoli and Other Pleasures”

  1. Growing up in Brooklyn, we went to the feast of Saint Fortunata – not during Carnevale, but for the Saint’s feast day – and enjoyed what they called “Sfinga” – a fried ball of dough they would put into small brown paper bags and liberally sprinkle with powdered sugar. Divine!!! I’ll have to try your recipe – it sounds very similar. Grazie!

    Reply
    • Frank arena

      Looks like “sfingi” to me also!…..By the way, as a new reader of
      Italian Noebook :” Does it ever cover Sicily?”

      Reply
      • GB

        Hi Frank, you can view the notes by category (places, events, food and wine, etc.) as well as by regione. At the top of the page is a “Regions” drop down list where you can pick which region you want to concentrate on.
        Here the link for the Sicily notes.
        Enjoy!

        Reply
  2. Great-sounding recipe! Just a question: is “T” a tablespoon and “t” a teaspoon?

    Reply
  3. Susan Caracciolo

    I’ve never seen such huge strufoli! Here, they are marble-sized pieces of dough that are fried and drizzled with honey and sometimes colorful sprinkles…but I think that is a mainly southern (Neopolitan, Calabrese etc) sweet. We also make chiacchiere, long strips of dough that are twisted and fried, covered with confectioners’ sugar. Lent is a sweet season!

    Reply
  4. Angelina Limato

    Ours were always small too (marble sized) and warmed honey poured over them with the colored sprinkles usually the round balls. Zappola were large balls of dough that were fried and covered in powedered sugar and sometimes Nonna would stuff some cheese and ham in the center and then fry them. Haven’t made them in a long while though but keep wanting to. Maybe soon! Thanks for your article and the recipe.

    Reply
  5. I am hungry from reading this article. It reminds me of arriving at the Spoleto train station for my first trip to Italy, in 2010. I expected the station cafe to have coffee, bottle water, maybe a croissant. OMG. For a mere 80 cents I got the most magnificent tower of pastry containing whipped cream and custard and delectable crust. I don’t know what it was called but it was just one of many similar treats. How to choose? Simple. I bought two and didn’t share.

    Reply
  6. Maria Semprini-DeMartino NY

    Hi, Does anyone know how much they consider a glass for the liquour? 2ounces, or 4 ounces etc.. grazie

    Reply
  7. Anne Damasco Ripepi

    My parents were both born in Gubbio, Umbria and have one grandfather buried there. I will be in your audience when you appear in Denver on March 1, 2012. -I believe last year you shared the recipe for the Italian Easter bread “Creshia” I hope to speak to you in Denver in Italian. Buona fortuna!
    Cordiali Saluti,
    ADR
    P.S.
    Do include the recipe of Castagnole some time soon please. I’m collecting the different names given to these pastries made throughout Italy.

    Grazie mille!

    Reply
  8. Anne Robichaud

    Anne, thanks for your note and please come up to say ” ciao” on the 1st at my Denver lecture. Yes, the Easter cheesebread (torta di formaggio) recipe was shared on this site / and the “crescia” recipe (we call it “torta” in the Assisi area) is a flat bread, eaten all year round has not yet been put up on Notebook – but I can share here if you wish…? pls let me know..can send link.
    Susan, yes, in Naples, tiny strufoli which they pile into wonderfully beautiful creations in various shapes. Umbria’s are always large.
    Maria / how much is a glass? probably about a cup..but have fun and remember always the most common annotation in any recipe in Italy: q. b.
    (quanto basta – whatever you need!)
    Thanks to all!

    Reply
  9. Anne is coming to our house next week to show my friends and family the cooking of Umbria. These little desserts are not on the menu, but I can’t wait to try them in my own.

    Reply
  10. Angela C.

    When I was younger, our Church would have a carnival in the street for 5 days in August. The most popular booth was the Zeppole booth. They would fry the balls of dough in the biggest pot I’ve ever seen and sell them, 5 for 25 cents, in a brown paper bag covered in powdered sugar. (Just as Angelina Limato has written.) And the Strufoli was marble size and made at Easter and Christmas. It’s so interesting that everyone has different traditions.
    Thanks for all the wonderful stories!

    Reply

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