Carnival is a very ancient festivity, dating back to the times of Greeks and Romans, who during these days of celebration let themselves go, free from obligations and commitments, to devote themselves to joke and play. However, recently it has become a Catholic and Christian festivity: the term carnival derives from the Latin language and it means “eliminate the meat“: in the past it was referred to the banquet that was held on the last day (Shrove Tuesday) before the period of abstinence and fasting dictated by Lent.
Our grandmother Maria told us that when she was a girl she used to celebrate Carnival by spending a lot of time at the Church («we didn’t go dancing» she told) and preparing good meat-based lunches that ended with the typical dessert of this time: the cenci! We will immediately reveal its recipe (read below) and the secret ingredient that was never lacking in peasant families.
The recipe of Nonna Maria’s carnival sweets called cenci
Method: Put the flour on the table, with salt and yeast, in the shape of a crater and in the centre place sugar, eggs, grated lemon (or orange) zest, 2 spoons of olive oil and Vin Santo (this one was the ingredient that Nonna Maria used, and still uses, to give an extra to our cenci). Mix all the ingredients well for about ten minutes and then make a ball and let it rest for about half an hour. With a rolling pin, roll out the dough on a floured pastry board (if it seems too hard, add a little milk) until it is reduced to a thickness of 2mm. With a washer or a knife cut it into strips two fingers wide which you will then cut diagonally every 4 fingers again, to have diamonds shape pasta. Fry them in boiling seed oil until they are golden-brown coloured and then put them to dry on a sheet of yellow paper.
Serve them sprinkled with powdered sugar (or granulated) and accompanied with Vin Santo, to fully enhance the flavour and sweetness, just like Grandma Maria did with her big family many years ago.
Many names, one greedy speciality
In other Italian cities, the cenci are known by the most different names (donzellini, nastrini di monache, sfrappole, frappe, chiacchiere di monaca, galani, frangette, fiocchi, fiocchetti) and lots of them indicate the “conventual” origin of these sweets. The oldest name for the cenci, however, is “gloves“, if they were given the shape of a hand, or crepes, if they were shaped into strips.
The first real written recipe for these carnival sweets dates back to the Renaissance, when Domenico Romoli, known as Panonto, published “La singolare doctrina” in 1560. We know just a few information about him, we know he was of Florentine origin, but in his treaty, between mostaccioli, sweet pizzas and biscuits, we find the recipe “To do Frappe, that are balls of strufoli pasta” where he described the preparation. They were a speciality of the carnival period at that time too and the ingredients were simply flour, eggs and sugar. With this dough, a thin rolling pin sheet was smoothed out, engraved with parallel cuts and fried in lard to be served sprinkled with honey.
P.S. If you pay attention to the fitness, you could also decide to cook them in the oven, but the result, we must warn you, will never be the same… and if Carnival has always been the party where everything is allowed, our suggestion is to fry them and to taste them accompanied by a glass of our Vin Santo del Chianti Reserve! 😜