3 Recipes for Celebrating Mardi Gras Italian-Style
Buon Carnevale! Buon appetito!
When Mardi Gras is brought up, everyone always imagines New Orleans or Rio de Janeiro — but the truth is, the Italian Carnevale is the original inspiration for those parties.
When you have a basic Catholic culture someplace such as Bavaria, Italy, Ireland, Haiti, Philippines and Brazil, our religious feasts will affect the local customs. In the case of the necessities of the Church’s prescribed Lenten fast, naturally, we want a fare-thee-well to fun, excitement and Bananas Foster beforehand.
Even non-Catholics know that we start a 40-day fast on Ash Wednesday and want to brace ourselves for going cold turkey on the hot fudge sundaes — so we have a chance to have a little fun, gastronomically speaking. Partying before Lent is meant to use all of the extra luxury foods before Ash Wednesday. It was a day when Catholics need to use up all of their fats, meat, sugar, honey, butter and eggs that were any other day were historically considered extravagances, even for the wealthy. One final fling, one last night of “decadence,” before we all deepen our prayers for our salvation and that of our relatives and friends.
In Italian, the days before Ash Wednesday are known as Carnevale. Whereas Mardi Gras literally means “Fat Tuesday,” Carnevale literally means, “farewell to meat.” (Mardi Gras in Italian is Martedi Grasso. It was first officially celebrated in Venice in 1094. The Venetian government officially sanctioned the street parties in 1296.)
During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Carnevale celebrations were extravagant spectacles and they just kept getting wilder. They included horseraces, parades, bonfires, theatrical plays, acrobatics and musical performances.
Since the 1600s, in Ivrea, Italy, Carnevale celebrations included a masked ball and Battaglia delle Arance where the villagers staged a mock war in which they threw 400 tons of oranges at each other to reenact an historical coup d'état in which fruit was the weapon of choice.
Carnevale is traditionally a time for mischief, merriment and pranks — whether malicious or well-meaning. After all, A Carnevale ogni scherzo vale (“during Carnevale, all jokes are fair play”). After all, we’re expected to dampen our enthusiasms for the next 40 days. My favorite is to coat a bar of soap with clear nail polish, making it impossible to use and place it in your bathroom. Hilarity will ensue.
By the mid-19th century in America, the street fairs involved decorated floats, street processions, papier-mâché masks and lavish costumes.
Unsurprisingly, every region in Italy has its own traditions and foods but all of them must have one in particular. Italians insist on having chiacchiere (fried strips of dough) served with sanguinaccio (a rich chocolate sauce). This name derives from the traditional method of using pig’s blood cooked with chocolate, sugar and spices. This is due to the fact that there were a lot of pigs slaughtered for Carnevale and the blood was a cheap source of protein.
Admittedly, Italian grandmothers can make bread and water taste good, so it’s not strange to think that they couldn’t make people stand in line begging for chocolate-infused pig’s blood. Keep in mind, these were poor people and every part of the pig was eaten except the oink. Even today, blood sausage is a symbol for Carnevale in Belgium and the Netherlands.
Party hardy, brothers and sisters, for tomorrow we fast as hard as we pray. Christ is, after all, the reason for the Lenten season.
Buon appetito! Buon Carnevale! Have a serene and easy Lenten fast!
And to help get you into a festive Italian mood for Carnevale, I offer the following family recipes:
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1 egg
- 1 lemon’s zest, grated
- 1 pinch salt
- 1 1/2 tablespoons butter at room temperature 20 gr - 0.7 oz
- 1 1/3 cups flour
- 2 quarts of oil for frying
- 2-3 tablespoons cinnamon
- 2-3 tablespoons confectionary sugar
- 3 tablespoons of almond, citrus, chocolate liquor or your favorite brandy/liqueur (if you’re adventuresome, you could use grappa — but tread carefully)
- Sift the flour through a flour strainer into a bowl. Add the egg, the butter, sugar, lemon zest, salt and liquor and mix well.
- You could use an electric mixing bowl until a ball forms around the hook, but what would Nona think?
- Cover the bowl with a wet cloth, allowing the dough rest for an hour.
- Roll out the dough as thin as you can over a floured working surface. A pasta roller would be nice but try this recipe by hand first before you start dropping hints for a Christmas present.
- Use a pasta cutter to cut out 4-6 inch strips of dough (about 4-6 inches by 1.5 inches)
- Heat 2 cups of cooking oil in an ample saucepan on a low-to-medium heat.
- Deep-fry only two at a time so that they don’t get stuck to each other. After they get golden brown after a few seconds, turn the strips over and continue cooking for a few more seconds.
- Remove the chiacchiere and set them over a plate with paper towels. Or you can use newspaper like grandma did. (Don’t mind me — I’m a traditionalist when it comes to cooking.)
- And now, the most difficult part of this recipe. You could wimp out and sprinkle the cookies with a lot of confectionary sugar or set out a jar of Nutella and have the kids go at it or — you could make an authentic Sanguinaccio sauce (below). Or even better, make two batches and sprinkle only one of them with confectionary sugar.
Break out that pasta roller you received for that Mother’s Day 10 years ago and you will not be disappointed. You don’t need to use it. You can use a rolling pin instead. But think of the optics — which one makes you look like the cool mom? (Personal Tip: Consider using a rolling pin. It makes a lasting impression on all those at whom you point it when making a point about cooking.)
If you want to have a little fun, consider making salty chiacchiere and serve them with prosciutto and other Italian cold cuts, cheeses and olives and pickled red peppers. When frying the chiacchiere, add chopped garlic and fresh rosemary to the pan.
A simpler chocolate sauce can be made by melting dark chocolate chips in a bain-marie. Never melt chocolate over direct heat.
Consider drizzling both white and regular chocolate over the freshly made chiacchiere for a beautiful effect.
Sanguinaccio Chocolate Dipping Sauce
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 1 lemon’s zest
- 1.5 cup of cocoa
- 1.5 cups of sugar
- 2 cups of milk
- 2 oz. of corn starch
- 2 tsp cinnamon
- 3 oz. bittersweet chocolate chips
- 6 tablespoons of unsalted butter
- Mix starch, cocoa and sugar in a bowl.
- Have a little kitchen helper slowly pour water into the above mixture as you stir the ingredients.
- Pour into a deep pan and cook over low heat for 20 minutes, stirring constantly stirring.
- Remove from heat and fold in the cinnamon, chocolate chips and butter.
- Fold the mixture. You may use an electric hand mixer, but what would your grandmother say?
- Transfer to a serving bowl and let it cool.
- Serve with chiacchiere or toast points
Bucatini Omelet (Pasta Omelet)
Bucatini is a thick spaghetti-like pasta with a hole lengthwise through the center. Buco means “hole” in Italian. If you can’t find bucatini at your local grocery shop, you can substitute cavatappi, penne, mostaccioli or rigatoni.
- 1 box of bucatini or another type of pasta
- 1 cup of diced salami
- 1 cup of grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
- 2 cups diced provolone or mozzarella
- 4 eggs
- 8 oz. of prosciutto slices
- 12 oz. ricotta cheese
- EVOO (extra virgin olive oil)
- Cook the pasta in salted boiling water until it is al dente.
- In a bowl, mix the ricotta, the eggs, cheese, salami, prosciutto.
- Drain the pasta well.
- Add the pasta and salt to taste.
- Pour the pasta into the mixing bowl with the eggs, cheese and meat mix.
- Heat some oil in a frying pan, pour the mixture in it, and cover. Cook on a low flame.
- When the frittata achieves a good consistence, turn it upside down using the lid or a plate and cook for a little bit longer.
Traditionally, the frittata is eaten at room temperature, but heating it up won’t get you in trouble with the kitchen police.
Instead of frying the frittata like your grandmother wants you to, you can bake the frittata in the oven for 12 minutes in a preheated oven at 370°F.