Sunday, February 10, 2013

Traditional Tuscan Carnival Desserts

Lent begins with Ash Wednesday in Italy and all predominantly Catholic countries.
Lent is a time of self-examination, of mental spiritual and physical cleansing
that ends with Easter, symbolized by the Resurrection.
Yet, here in Tuscany, a respite can be obtained by
indulging in typical pre-Lent Carnival desserts that continue after Mardi Gras to be available
 in local cafés and bakeries.
One is schiacciata alla fiorentina (above), whose golden color comes from locally grown
saffron, which is mixed with flour, yeast, eggs, vanilla and sugar.  Always dusted with powdered sugar,  a more decadent version is layered with whipped cream.
 As its name implies, it is a speciality of Florence.
While every Italian housewife (including my later mother) also makes these at home, this sweet varies in name according to the Italian region.  In Tuscany these scraps of dough composed of flour, eggs, a little sugar and usually a touch of alcohol--either Vin Santo, rum or sherry--are known as cenci (rags).  Locally they are also called chiacchere (talk or gossip) as in pre-TV Italy, it was the custom that friends would gather at home for hot cenci, coffee and conversation.
 Cenci are best served just at the moment when they are deep fried (peanut or olive oil), cut with a pastry wheel and sprinkled with powdered sugar.
A simple dessert that is soul-satisfying.
As mentioned, schiacciata alla fiorentina and cenci provide warm respite during the pre-Lent Carnival period as well as most of Lent.  Towards the end of Lent, fritelle (above) appear.
Again, many an Italian housewife makes these at home especially on Sunday.
Fritelle herald the arrival of the Feast of St. Joseph (March 17), a sort of unofficial Italian
Father's Day.  Boiled rice enriched with milk, eggs, golden raisins and grated lemon zest are shaped into balls, deep fried and brought to the table hot with a dusting of granulated sugar.
Fritelle are richer than cenci and just as irresistible.

When in Tuscany, blog photographer Bree Chun and I suggest you stop at a café and enjoy these local winter specialties.  And, before you know it, the local Italian parish priest will ring the door bell, sprinkle holy water and bless your home, afterwards waiting quietly for the expected donation.
 Yet another pre-Easter tradition here in Beautiful Florence.

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