The story behind Italy's most famous cookbook author and two wickedly deep-fried dessert recipes to celebrate Carnival.
Carnevale celebrations in Italy would not be complete without the abundant deep-fried sweets found up and down the country, taking on several different forms and names. Here’s the story behind Italy’s most famous cookbook author, Pellegrino Artusi, and two of his Carnival dessert recipes—essential for the Italian Carnevale experience.
The first bestselling Italian cookbook
Once upon a time in the late 19th century, a retired silk merchant spent much of his spare time pottering around Florence’s libraries. Originally from the Romagnol town of Forlimpopoli, this eccentric man with mutton-chopped sideburns, Pellegrino Artusi, wrote three books in his lifetime. The first two, about Italian poets Ugo Foscolo and Giuseppe Giusti, went largely unnoticed. The third, entitled Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well, went on to become one of the most beloved cookbooks in Italian history.
Initially, it looked like Artusi’s 1891 recipe compendium would suffer the same fate as his earlier publishing efforts. As he relates in his introduction entitled, “The story of a book that is a bit like the story of Cinderella,” several Florentine publishing houses and a literary scholar acquaintance told him that the book had no future. The ever-determined Artusi ended up printing 1,000 copies at his own expense. Word got out of the book’s merits and, along with other Italian classics like Alessandro Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi and Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio, it has been a bestseller ever since.
Today, Artusi’s opus is credited with revolutionizing the cookbook genre in Italy. Writing a mere 20 years after Italian unification, Artusi provided his readers with recipes—790 in all—spanning the length of the recently-unified peninsula, the first Italian cookbook to do so.
From French cuisine to true cucina Italiana
Up until Artusi’s cookbook, recipe books in Italy had been dominated by the heavily French-influenced cuisine the Italian nobility preferred. Furthermore, in 1861, just 2.5 percent of Italy’s population spoke standard Italian. As one historian has said, “Italy had no shared vocabulary in which a Venetian and Neapolitan could come to terms with pots and pans issues.” Almost single-handedly, Artusi created a culinary vocabulary for his compatriots by rejecting the French cookery terms and utilizing Tuscan-origin culinary words such as cotoletta (cutlet), tritacarne (meatmincer) and mestolo (ladle).
There is another reason why so many copies of Artusi’s book continue to be thumbed through at Italian stovetops today: it’s a thoroughly enjoyable read. Witty and engaging, his recipes are often accompanied by historical tidbits and amusing anecdotes. One personal favourite is the potato gnocchi which “disappear” after being put to boil and stirred. Artusi’s lesson for readers: use enough flour so they hold together!
In Artusi’s day, cake batters were beaten by hand, and stovetops were yet to be powered by gas or electricity. His cooking methods reflect the technology available at the time, but his recipes are perfectly adaptable to the contemporary kitchen. Here are two of Artusi’s recipes that have become part of my culinary repertoire every year in the lead-up to Carnival.
2 classic Carnival dessert recipes
These thin, crimped-edged fritters appear to have their origins in the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia. During festivities in honour of the deity Saturn, fritters called fricitilia were prepared in large quantities, fried in lard and distributed to the masses. Today, an Italian Carnival celebration would not be complete without these deep-fried strips of sweet pastry. Their names vary according to wherever you find yourself in Italy, but in Artusi’s adopted region of Tuscany, they are known as cenci, meaning ‘rags’.
Ingredients (makes about 30 cenci)
- 240 g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
- 20 g caster sugar
- a pinch of salt
- 20 g butter, melted
- 2 eggs, lightly beaten
- 1 shot grappa, such as Grappa di Lugana by Zenato
- vegetable oil (or lard), for deep-frying
- powdered sugar, for dusting
Sift flour, caster sugar, and salt together in a large bowl. Create a well in the center and add the melted butter, lightly-beaten eggs and grappa. Beat with a fork in the center and move out until all the dry ingredients are incorporated. Transfer to a lightly-floured work surface and knead until forming a smooth and elastic ball of dough. Wrap dough in cling film and allow to rest for at least 30 minutes in refrigerator or another cool place. Divide dough into two balls. Take one ball and roll dough out with a rolling pin until it is almost transparent, about 1-2mm thick. Repeat procedure with the second ball. Using a serrated pastry-wheel, cut the flattened dough into strips measuring about 2.5 cm wide and 10 cm long.
Heat vegetable oil to 340°F (170°C). Twist or knot the cenci before lowering them into the hot oil. Fry for about 30 seconds on each side until golden brown. Remove with a slotted spoon and transfer to a dish lined with paper towels. Dust with powdered sugar while still hot. Serve (ideally, still warm) with a glass of Tuscan botrytis wine—a sweet dessert wine made from late harvest grapes that have “noble rot”—such as Le Pupille’s SolAlto.
These sugar-coated, donut-like balls are Austrian in origin. In the northeastern regions of Trentino Alto-Adige, Friuli-Venezia-Giulia and Veneto (regions once ruled by the Austro-Hungarian empire) you’ll still hear the locals calling them by their German name, krapfen. Elsewhere in Italy, including Artusi’s Tuscany, they are known as bomboloni. Originally conceived as a Carnival sweet, they’re so wonderful, you’ll now find them served year-round at festivals and other street fairs throughout the country.
Ingredients (makes about 10 krapfen)
- 100 mL milk, tepid
- 5 g active dried yeast
- 5 g sugar
- 200 g strong bread flour (high gluten and protein), plus extra for dusting
- a pinch of salt
- 3 egg yolks, lightly-beaten
- 50 g melted butter, room temperature
- vegetable oil (or lard), for deep-frying
- granulated sugar, for coating
Pour tepid milk into a jug and add active dried yeast and sugar. Stir and leave to sit until the yeast has dissolved completely and foam rises to the surface (about 10 minutes). Add bread flour and salt to a large bowl and create a well in the center. Add the milk containing the dissolved yeast and sugar, the lightly-beaten eggs, and the melted butter at room temperature. Beat with a fork in the center and move out until all the dry ingredients are incorporated. Dust hands lightly with some flour and transfer the mixture to a lightly-dusted work surface. Knead until forming a smooth and elastic ball of dough that no longer adheres to your hands and work surface (10-15 minutes). Put dough in a bowl, cover with a tea towel or plastic wrap, and leave to rise in a warm place away from drafts until doubled in size (about 1-2 hours).
Deflate dough and roll it into a thick snake 3 cm in diameter. Divide dough into 10 pieces weighing about 40 g each. Roll and shape into balls. Transfer to a large lined baking dish ensuring that the balls are not too close to each other. With drinking glass, flatten the balls into discs about 1-1.5 cm thick. Leave to proof in a warm place for 30-40 minutes.
Heat vegetable oil to 340°F (170°C) in a saucepan large enough for the krapfen to float. Carefully lower the risen discs into the hot oil. Fry on each side or until golden brown. Remove with a slotted spoon and transfer to a dish lined with paper towels. Transfer krapfen to a bowl containing caster sugar while still hot, turning them over carefully so they are evenly coated. Enjoy while still warm, perhaps with your morning cappuccino.
Leave to cool completely if wishing to fill your krapfen with some crema pasticcera (Italian pastry cream) or jam. To do so, use the tip of a piping bag to make a small hole at the top of the krapfen and inject a small amount of crema or jam inside.