January 6th is the Feast Day of the Epiphany, the celebration of which is a major occasion in the Italian household.
When we think of Epiphany, besides commemorating the visit of the Magi, Italian children are waiting to see what La Befana has left for them.
La Befana is an old, ugly women that rides around on a broom - though she wears a pointed hat she isn't a witch and she isn't someone frightening. She is on a quest to find the baby Jesus and just like the Magi, is bearing gifts.
As my mother tells me, on the night of January 5th, the children would hang their socks by the fire. Unlike Santa Claus's treat in the West, you would leave a small glass of wine for her. During the night La Befana would visit and if the children had been good she would leave some sweet treats for them but if they were bad, then they would find a lump of carbon or coal in their socks.
In my mother's village, after participating in the church services the children would gather at the local baker and he would portion out treats to them. It really was a major day of celebration that vied with Christmas itself.
One of the foods that were made on this day, and it's also known as a food that's eaten during Lent, is the fried pastry called Crostoli. Depending on which region you come from in Italy, it will have other names like Cenci and Chiacchere.
So today I thought it would most appropriate to celebrate Epiphany by preparing my mother's special crostoli.
Before I head to the recipe there are a few things you must heed to make proper crostoli:
1. Instead of water to bind the dough, you must use wine or a spirit like Grappa. I have tried making it without and it just isn't the same. There's some kind of reaction, a fermentation of sorts, that happens when you use alcohol that allows the dough to puff up.
2. You must let the dough rest to allow this reaction to occur - a few hours will do.
3. The dough must be rolled as thinly as possible - if not, you'll end up with crostoli without crunch.
4. You must have hot oil - about 150°C/300°F is a good temperature to cause the quick puffing and crisping of the dough without it absorbing any excess oil.
5. Dust the crostoli liberally with icing sugar while they are still hot and make sure you do both sides. As the dough isn't very sweet, you need to be generous with the icing sugar.
It may be a matter of practice but if you keep these tips in mind, you'll soon have a perfect plate of crostoli to share.
500 grams 00 flour or plain flour
50 grams softened butter, diced
40 grams caster sugar
1 whole egg
1 egg yolk
pinch of salt
Where my mother would do this by hand, this recipe is perfectly food processor friendly.
Sift the flour with a pinch of salt and add to the bowl of a food processor, along with the sugar. Give it a quick pulse to mix.
Add the diced butter and pulse again, until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
Add the whole egg and egg yolk and pulse again, before adding the wine, a tablespoon at a time until the mixture comes together to form a ball.
Remove from the process, knead briefly to form a smooth dough, shape into a thick cylinder then wrap it in plastic and place it in the fridge to rest.
To make the dough more manageable I tend to portion the dough into slices.
Take a slice and roll it out until it's almost thin enough to see through.
Use a ridged pasta cutter to cut the dough into odd shaped pieces. I tend to follow my mother's method and just make all shorts of shapes - the randomness is one it's greatest appeals.
If, after you've cut the dough into it's individual pieces, you think it might be a little too thick, just give each piece another roll with the pin.
Heat up a large saucepan with neutral oil, be it vegetable, canola etc. I wouldn't use olive oil though in some parts of Italy they will use lard.
A thermometer comes in really handy to get the right temperature. When it's around 150°C/300°, place one of the pieces into the oil. It should quickly puff, bubbles form all over the surface - turn over to ensure the other side browns. As soon as it's achieved a golden brown colour, remove to paper towels. Let it sit for a moment before placing it on another plate - this is where you will dust them with icing sugar.
Have a taste to make sure they are crispy. If they aren't you may need to adjust the temperature of your oil and/or give the pieces another roll over with the rolling pin.
So whether you celebrate the day or not, please enjoy this Italian treat.
Tagged with Sweet Food