When it comes to Carnival, overindulgence is the whole point: too many parties, too much booze and, in just about every Catholic country, great platters of fried sweet dough.
Carnival doughnuts are omnipresent across Catholic Europe and parts of the Americas. In Lyon and Strasbourg, France, square yeast-raised beignets are made for the holiday; in Spain you will find rosquillas de carnaval (a dense, doughnut-shaped treat) and all sorts of other buñuelos; in Italy each region has its own fritelle di carnevale. The one-word explanation? Lard.
Christians were supposed to abstain from meat products for the 40 days of Lent, and doughnuts were traditionally fried in hog fat. As every good Catholic knows, you need to sin before you can repent. So, if you’re going to spend six weeks restraining your urges, you might as well make a good reason for it.
European doughnuts: happy excess
For ordinary people, doughnuts became associated with happy excess during a time when all the rules of their miserable existence could be inverted, when a measly diet of stale bread was replaced by mountains of fresh-fried doughnuts.
But few are as obsessed with Carnival or fried dough as the Venetians. Year round, you can find delicious krapfen (jelly doughnuts) there, but in the lead-up to Lent, the fried dough repertoire increases exponentially. Bakery windows are full of frittelle di carnevale, which depending on the pastry shop, take two very different forms: airy yeast-raised fritters chock-full of raisins, pine nuts, citron and, occasionally anisette or grappa (see recipe); or fried cream puffs that enclose a variety of creamy fillings.
I can’t believe that it’s a coincidence that Europe’s doughnut orgies take place in the depths of winter. The sugar and the fat are better than any high-tech undergarment.
I had a chance to test this out during a ski trip to Innsbruck even as Fasching (Carnival) was reaching its delirious peak. Here, in the alpine Tyrol, locals celebrate by parading through the streets in masks worthy of a Brothers Grimm nightmare and by eating mountains of Faschingskrapfen, or Carnival doughnuts. Even as I got off the train, I was greeted with stands loaded down with plump raised doughnuts, some filled with preserves, others with custard, chocolate cream or even eiercognac, a boozy eggnog custard.
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According to my friend, Austrian food historian Ingrid Haslinger, they’ve been frying up these yeast-raised pastries here for centuries. In the days when sugar was a luxury reserved for princes, the mountain folk would dip their krapfen into bowls of prune and apple butter. Now everybody can indulge in the sweet-filled variety.
I was pleased to find piles of Carnival doughnuts even at the mountaintop ski lodge. In these harsh conditions, they are not merely a snack but rather lunch itself. Following the lead of local skiers, I sat down to a spicy goulash soup as appetizer and continued with doughnuts for my main course (one filled with apricot and the other with chocolate, if you must know). Winter never felt so right.
The perfect pre-Lent indulgence
The doughnut as Carnival food, something that you gorge on before the gray days of Lent, isn’t entirely an alien concept in the United States. The Pennsylvania Dutch keep a firm grip on the centuries-old tradition of frying up enormous batches of Fastnachts in anticipation of Ash Wednesday just like their ancestors did in southwest Germany and parts of Switzerland. The Fastnacht is typically a yeast-raised doughnut (sometimes with potato added) cut in the form of a diamond, often slashed and opened in the center to allow it to cook faster and a larger surface area to get crisp.
You find similar recipes in Alsace and neighboring regions today. Fastnacht (literally “fast night”) is a German word for Shrove Tuesday and in the parts of the old country, these Carnival pastries were (and are) called Fastnachstküchle. The plain folk there shortened the name but kept the recipe and at least the doughnut part of the pre-Lenten tradition; Carnival is certainly not the festival of folly that it can be in Catholic Germany.
One rule that is universal, though, no matter where you find the doughy treats and regardless of name: Too much is never enough. You’ll have plenty of time to repent.
Frittelle veneziane (Venetian Carnival Fritters)
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 4 to 6 minutes per batch
Yield: About 2 dozen
2 ounces (about 1/2 cup) golden raisins
1/2 cup anisette liqueur
1/4 ounce (1 packet) active dry yeast
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons tepid water
1 large egg
9 ounces (about 2 cups) all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
Large ping (1/8 teaspoon) salt
1 ounce (about 3 tablespoons) pine nuts
1 ounce (about 3 tablespoons) chopped candied citron
Grated zest of 1 lemon
Oil or lard for frying
1. In a bowl, combine the raisins and anisette. Cover with plastic wrap and soak at least 4 hours or overnight.
2. In the bowl of a stand mixer, stir together the water and yeast. Let stand 5 minutes. Stir in the egg. In a separate bowl, mix together the flour, granulated sugar and salt.
3. Using a paddle attachment, beat the flour mixture into the water-yeast mixture on low speed. Beat 5 minutes on medium to make the batter very smooth — it should be somewhat thicker than pancake batter.
4. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place in a warm location. Let stand until the batter has doubled in volume, 45 to 60 minutes. Stir in the raisins, pine nuts, citron and lemon zest.
5. Using a deep fryer or a heavy pan, heat at least 3 inches of the oil to 350 F. If you’re not using a deep fryer and are without a built-in thermostat, check the oil temperature using a candy or deep-fry thermometer.
6. Lightly oil 2 tablespoons, then scoop about 2 tablespoons of batter in one spoon and slide it off with the second. A small oiled ice cream scoop works well, too. Fry about a half-dozen at a time, turning occasionally until cooked through, 4 to 6 minutes. Drain on paper towels and allow to cool — enough so you can pick them up. Sprinkle generously with confectioner’s sugar. The frittelle are best served warm. Leftovers can be frozen and reheated in a 350 F oven.
For more on doughnut history, check out Michael Krondl’s most recent book: “The Donut: History, Recipes and Lore from Boston to Berlin.”
Main photo: Fritetelle veneziane, or Venetian fritters, are best served warm with a dusting of confectioner’s sugar. Credit: Michael Krondl