This past weekend, Jay and I headed to the town of Acireale for Carnevale. While Venice is probably the most well-known Italian city for Carnevale celebrations, many other cities all over Italy also host festivities. Here in Sicily, the cities of Acireale and Sciacca host the largest Carnevale events.
The word ‘Carnevale’ is of Latin origin. It comes from “carne levare,” which means “cessation of meat.” Carnevale celebrations always take place during the weeks prior to the beginning of Lent, which is a time that Roman Catholics are supposed to abstain from eating meat. In addition, people are supposed to give up something they enjoy as an act of penance to bring them closer to God. Most often, these are things like sweets and alcohol. Carnevale is sort of like a last chance to enjoy all things frivolous and hedonistic before devoting 40 days to God in preparation for the Holy Easter holiday.
Acireale’s Carnevale celebration was a feast for the senses! Colorful, allegorical floats made their way down the streets in the Baroque city center, music blaring from loud speakers perched on the floats themselves, followed by marching bands, and performers adorned in elaborate costumes. Masked and costumed festival-goers tossed confetti and sprayed silly string at one another. The smell of crepes, cotton candy, and fried pastries wafted through the air. It really was quite an experience!
The most memorable moment of the festival involved me accidentally spraying silly string into the face of a carabinieri (police officer) because my intended target (a teenager who had just nailed me with the stuff) ducked. OOPS! Luckily, the man didn’t see where the silly string came from. A sweet, little old lady behind me, who was also armed with silly string, I might add, got a good chuckle out of it, though. Really, it’s impossible to go to Carnevale without coming home covered in confetti and silly string! It’s been 4 days, and I’m still finding confetti in unsuspecting places!
In Italy, special pastries are prepared for just about every holiday, and Carnevale is no different. The names of these sweets vary from region to region, but the basic concept is the same: Sweetened Fried Dough. YUM! In Tuscany, they call them cenci (“little rags”). They’re called bugie (“little lies”) in Liguria. Here in Sicily, they are chiacchiere (“little gossips”). I’ve been told that they get their name from the chatty hisses and pops that are made when the dough is dropped into the fryer. Regardless of what they are called, they are absolutely delicious! I purchased some yesterday for Martedi Grasso (Fat Tuesday). In additional to the traditional recipe, I was very happy to find some that had been drizzled with chocolate. They must have known that I was coming 🙂
Even though I did not make my own chiacchiere this year, I do have a good recipe for them that was given to me by one of my friends here in Marsala. Although Carnevale has officially ended for this year, you can enjoy these crunchy little sweets year-round.
1 1/2 cups “00” or unbleached all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
2 Tbsp. lard or butter, chilled
3 Tbsp. sweet Marsala wine
Vegetable oil for frying
Powdered sugar for dusting
Sift the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt into a medium mixing bowl. Cut in the lard or butter until the mixture resembles course cornmeal. In a small bowl, beat together the egg and wine until blended. Pour into the flour mixture and mix until the dough comes together into a ball.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly-floured work surface and knead for 5 minutes. Cover and refriegerate for one hour before rolling out.
Divide the chilled dough into 4 pieces. Keep the unused portion covered while you work. Roll a piece of the dough very, very thin, dusting the work surface with a tiny bit of flour if it sticks. The thinner that you roll out the dough, the flakier and crispier the cookies will be. Cut the dough into 2 by 4-inch strips using a fluted pastry wheel or a pizza cutting wheel.
In a deep fryer, or large, heavy pan, heat 3 inches of oil to 350 degrees. Fry a few chiacchiere at a time, turning once, until lightly browned, about 45 seconds per side. Remove and drain on paper towels. Dust with powdered sugar and enjoy.