Castagnole

Frankdessert, Emilia-Romagna, Lazio, Toscana, Umbria, Veneto32 Comments

Castagnole

Carnival time was traditionally the last chance to have meat before Lent. The very word carnevale comes from the Latin expression carne levare, loosely meaning to “say goodbye to meat”. Indeed, martedì grasso or Fat Tuesday is still celebrated with a large meal featuring meat-laden dishes like the Neapolitan lasagne di Carnevale.

And yet, perhaps the most iconic Italian dishes for Carnival actually come at the end of the meal, in the form of dolci fritti, or fried sweets. In past years we’ve looked at a few of these, like the iconic fried ribbons of dough called (among many other names) chiacchiere, as well as the raisin-studded fritters from Venice called fritole and the apple fritters called frittelle di mele from Alto Adige.

This year I want to share with you the recipe for yet another lovely dolce fritto called castagnole, little balls of dough enriched with eggs and butter and perfumed with liqueur and lemon zest, then deep fried and encrusted in sugar. They are thought to resemble chestnuts, called castagne in Italian. So hence the name. Originally from the central-northern regions of Italy, specifically the Veneto, Emilia-Romagna, Lazio, Umbria and Tuscany, today you will find them all over the country.

Castagnole are sweet without being cloying and, when properly made, crisp on the outside but light and airy on the inside. They are delicious on their own, served as a snack with coffee or as a toothsome dessert. But I think they really come into their own dipped in chocolate. No matter how you choose to enjoy them, they’re so good that you might not want to limit them to just Carnival time.

Ingredients

Makes about 30-35 castagnole

For the dough:

  • 200g (7 oz) flour, preferably the “OO” type
  • 50g (4 Tbs) granulated sugar
  • 40g (3 Tbs) softened butter
  • 2 eggs
  • 8 g (2 tsp) baking powder
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 Tbs anisette or other liqueur (see Notes)
  • The zest of 1/2 lemon

For frying:

  • peanut or vegetable oil

To finish:

  • granulated sugar, q.b.

Directions

In a large mixing bowl (or in the bowl of the standing mixer), whisk together the softened butter, sugar, liqueur, lemon zest and vanilla extract until smooth. Add the eggs and whisk again.

Then incorporate the baking soda, along with flour by cupfuls until you’ve formed a smooth, soft but non-sticky dough. )I usually begin with a whisk, then switch to a wooden spoon or spatula when the dough gets too solid to whisk, then once I have a ball, switch to hand kneading.)

Let the dough rest for 30 minutes or so.

Take perhaps 1/4 of the dough and roll it out on a lightly floured pastry/cutting board with the palms of your hands into a log about 2cm (3/4 inch) thick, as if you were making potato gnocchi.

Cut the log into 2 cm (3/4 inch) sections, then take each section and roll it in the palms of your hands into round balls. Place the balls onto a lightly floured baking sheet.

Deep fry the balls in moderately hot (180F/350C) oil until golden brown on all sides, about 2-3 minutes. Using a spider skimmer, toss the dough balls gingerly in the oil now and again so they brown evenly on all sides. The should puff up considerably. Drain on paper towels or a baking rack.

While still warm, sprinkle your fried castagnole with sugar and toss until well covered on all sides.

Serve at room temperature.

Castagnole

Notes

The usual tips for deep frying apply when making castagnole. Most importantly, you should take care to maintain proper temperature. The dough balls have time to cook inside while they brown on the outside. As indicated in the recipe, an oil temp of around 180C/350F or a bit less is the sweet spot. Otherwise, as usual make sure the dough balls have lots of room. You will probably need to proceed in batches.

Variations

The base recipe for castagnole is remarkably consistent across sources. The ingredients generally stay the same, although measurements can vary—slightly more or less butter or sugar, for example. The liqueur can vary according to your taste. Anisette (or sambuca) is perhaps the most common, but rum, grappa, Strega and even Grand Marnier are also popular choices. If you prefer to avoid alcohol, you can substitute orange juice. Orange zest can sub for lemon zest. And in some recipes, you dust the fried castagnole in confectioner’s sugar. I find granulated sugar coats them more thoroughly (some say it helps prevent them from drying out) and lends them their iconic glittery appearance.

They are some interesting regional variations on castagnole. For example, in Umbria they make castagnole umbre with a sambuca-scented batter rather than a proper dough, which is deep fried by the spoonful. In Le Marche, they make scroccafusi marchigiani where the dough balls are boiled before deep frying. They are sometimes tossed in melted chocolate. In Tuscany, after frying they toss them in Alkermes, a red herbal liqueur, before they’re sprinkled with sugar.

In Tuscany, after frying they toss them in Alkermes, a red herbal liqueur, before they’re sprinkled with sugar.

And if you want to get really fancy, there are also castagnole farcite, or stuffed castagnole. They can be filled with ricotta sweetened with sugar, whipped cream, crema pasticcera, pistachio cream or chocolate. You place a tiny bit of the filling in the middle of a flat round of the dough. You then wrap the dough around the filling to create your ball. (Making castagnole farcite is a rather delicate process, and one that deserves its own post, but I just wanted to flag that possibility for you.)

If you’re adverse to frying, you can bake your castagnole. Place the balls on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and bake at 180F/350C for about 15-20 minutes, or until golden brown. Since they will be a bit less rich than fried ones, you may want to use more sugar and/or butter in the dough to compensate.

Serving castagnole

Castagnole are at their best when freshly made, but they will keep for a few days. Keep them in an airtight container or at least covered in a towel or plastic wrap, so they don’t dry out too much.

Castagnole are lovely served with coffee or hot chocolate. Or you can serve them with some chocolate pudding for dipping. In fact, there is a famous Neapolitan chocolate pudding served at Carnival time called sanguinaccio. As the name implies, the traditional recipe called for pig’s blood, which acted as a thickener and lent a certain je ne sais quoi to the taste. Sadly, corn or potato starch has replaced pig’s blood in modern recipes. Anyway, sanguinaccio will be the topic for yet another post in the future, perhaps next year around Carnival time…

Castagnole

Fried sweet dough balls for Carnival

Ingredients

For the dough

  • 200g 7 oz flour preferably the "OO" type
  • 50g 4 Tbs granulated sugar
  • 40g 3 Tbs softened butter
  • 2 eggs
  • 8g 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 Tb rum, anisette or other liqueur
  • 1/2 lemon just the zest, grated

For frying

  • vegetable or peanut oil

For finishing

  • granulated sugar

Instructions

  • In a large mixing bowl (or in the bowl of the standing mixer), whisk together the softened butter, sugar, liqueur, lemon zest and vanilla extract until smooth. Add the eggs and whisk again. 
  • Then incorporate the baking soda, along with the flour by cupfuls until you've formed a smooth, soft but non-sticky dough. )I usually begin with a whisk, then switch to a wooden spoon or spatula when the dough gets too solid to whisk, then once I have a ball, switch to hand kneading.)
  • Let the dough rest for 30 minutes or so.
  • Take perhaps 1/4 of the dough and roll it out on a lightly floured pastry/cutting board with the palms of your hands into a log about 2cm (3/4 inch) thick, as if you were making potato gnocchi
  • Cut the log into 2 cm (3/4 inch) sections, then take each section and roll it in the palms of your hands into round balls. Place the balls onto a lightly floured baking sheet. 
  • Deep fry the balls in moderately hot (180F/350C) oil until golden brown on all sides, about 2-3 minutes. Using a spider skimmer, toss the dough balls gingerly in the oil now and again so they brown evenly on all sides. The should puff up considerably. Drain on paper towels or a baking rack. 
  • While still warm, sprinkle your fried castagnole with sugar and toss until well covered on all sides. 
  • Serve at room temperature. 

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32 Comments on “Castagnole”

  1. My husband’s family makes a more peasant version of these dough balls ‘pizza frites’ Yours looks amazing. I feel like a good cup of coffee and a handful of these castagnoles.

    Velva

  2. I’ve never had castagnole although I’ve definitely tried similar recipes that exist in other cuisines (so many similarities across the world, right?) These little fritters look wonderful and so delicious. Loving the hint of vanilla, citrus, and especially – liquor!

  3. I made something similar (with ricotta) for my Italian chit-chat group a couple of weeks ago. They went in a flash. Why does fried dough have to taste so darn good?

  4. “Sadly, corn or potato starch has replaced pig’s blood…” Sadly? Hmmm. We might have to agree to disagree there, Frank! I’m not sure I have any pig’s blood among my baking ingredients. In other news, I’m shocked that I’ve never realized the origin of carnival and “carne levare.” The Latin teacher in me is ashamed. Castagnole sound delicious, and I don’t think I’ve ever had them before…although they do sound similar to zeppole, and I have eaten my share of those!

    1. Ah, David. I’m a dyed in the wool traditionalist. At least when it comes to food…

      These are quite similar to zeppole and other fried sweets, but they have their own special charm. It’s amazing to me how much variety you can get from different ways of handling fried dough!

  5. In Lucca I had a similar treat, which was called bombolone. Not the filled variety, just light little puffs of heaven on earth! I bought a paper bag of them, hot from the fat and just tossed in granulated sugar… . Raced to the nearest espresso stand to complete the picture! Mmmmm! One more reason to love Lucca, as if one were needed!

    1. Sounds like heaven, Charlie! These are a bit smaller and denser, perhaps a bit easier for a home cook. Definitely the same “wheelhouse”, though!

  6. Wow – they’re so beautiful! You should sell them now that you’ve retired! I don’t really like anisette… my mother loved Pernod back when she drank occasionally. What a smell!

    1. Ha! Funny how those things go. Anisette was very much part of my upbringing, though in my case I love(d) the aroma. These days I’m more partial to Sambuca which, as you probably know if anything is even more assertive than anisette!

    1. You can bake them, as you hopefully saw in the Notes. Of course, you do lose much of the “naughty” aspect of the dish–the last indulgence before Lent—but I suppose it’s healthier. Sigh…

  7. These are beautiful – and can imagine the color in Tuscany when using Alkermes! I wish I could get things to fry as beautifully as you do. Keeping the temperature steady without a deep fryer is hard. I wish I could sink my teeth into one of these now. They’d be perfect with my cocoa.

    1. It can be a bit tricky. I’m lucky that I have a particular burner on my stove that seems to keep the temperature pretty constant so the flame only needs light monitoring. But you’re right, this is the kind of thing that deep fryers were made for. I actually have one but didn’t bother with it for this. Funnily enough, given how often I like to fry, I don’t use it too much. It’s on the far side of the kitchen and I’m lazy…

      1. That cracked me up, Frank – that is SUPER lazy! Hahaha… I don’t have one – and sometimes wish I did. Just for times like this – when I want a batch of castagnole – or fried sage leaves stuffed with anchovy paste.

  8. They look delicious! I was hoping you’d say the name relates to chestnuts – I suspected as much because the Spanish word for chestnuts is very similar – castañas. I was just telling someone about sanguinaccio this morning. I’ve wanted to make it for a long time and can get blood from the cansaladeria, but I suspect it should really be made with very fresh blood from a matanza (pig slaughter in late October, still done at home in some Spanish villages).

    1. It seems that pig’s blood was outlawed in Italy way back in the early 1990s. I’m guessing it was partly a reaction to the Mad Cow disease outbreak? That was around the time brains stopped being sold as well. Ah well.. You actually can buy pig’s blood here in the US, so ironically you can still make old style sanguinaccio here but not there!

  9. They are great to enjoy during Carnival season or any time of the year when the craving hits 🙂 Here in Cologne we have something similar called Berliner with jam, cream or chocolate filling.

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