Saturday, January 06, 2007

Epiphany

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.

crostoli

Crostoli

500 grams 00 flour or plain flour
50 grams softened butter, diced
40 grams caster sugar
1 whole egg
1 egg yolk
white wine
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.


dough

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.

cooked

So whether you celebrate the day or not, please enjoy this Italian treat.

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11 comments:

  1. What an excellent holiday treat, and thank you for the information on Le Befana. I'd heard a little bit about her, but this was really informative and interesting to hear how the celebration happens in the Italian household. I will try Crostoli.

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  2. Haalo,

    Thanks for the information on Epiphany, I learn something new again today :). These crostoli are absolutely fabulous for munching on.

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  3. Haalo, what a nice reminder of a tradition I had forgotten about.
    My next door neighbour, an old Italian lady, used to babysit her grand children while her daughter went to work. My daughter was always over there playing with her grand daughter. She came home one day and told me she needed a sock because La Befana was coming.
    Not knowing what she was doing I gave her one and she took it to Maria's house and came home the next day with it full of home made goodies.

    Your crostoli look very nice. They are always soooo moorish, you just can't stop at one!!!

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  4. More great photography and informative posting. Brill.

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  5. Haalo, I just saw the news on Epiphany yesterday and your post gave me so much more information about it! Your Crostoli looks absolutely beautiful! :)

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  6. Thanks TW - I hope you do, though they are very addictive.

    Thanks Angie - anytime is a good time for Crostoli.

    Hi Karen - what a lovely story to have and isn't it refreshing that so much enjoyment can be had with something so simple but made from the heart.

    Thanks Trig!

    Thanks Anh - epihany has certainly got lost over time so I was happy to share this bit of history.

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  7. Haalo, my grandfather was Italian but, since he died when my father was a little boy, we never had the chance to know more about Italian culture and food.
    I really liked La Befana story, I thought it was very interesting!

    This is a delicious treat and it reminds of "pastel", something we eat a lot here in Brazil: it's made of a very similar dough and has to be made with "cachaça" (firewater, I guess, in English). Alcohol plays a very important part in the dough.
    It's also fried and before that filled with cheese, ground beef, and sweet fillings.

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  8. Thanks Patricia - I know Cachaça it's the ingredient you need to make the best Caipirinha. The pastels sounded so good I had to google them! They look fantastic.

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  9. My nanna used to make these, big huge twisted hoops, I remember on a tray covered in a tea towel. drenched in golden honey and icing sugar. We knew them as 'chrooshed' As a child I used to always end up with a face ful of icing sugar and very sticky fingers. rest in peace nanna xxx

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  10. Thanks for letting me know why in Brazil my oldest aunt and my grandmother made crustoli (crostoli's name in their Veneto dialect) for Carnival time and the New Year (Epiphany is not celebrated in Brazil).
    I never had an opportunity to ask them and never had the slightest idea of the reason for such different dates.
    My 80-year-old mother still makes crustoli on occasion, but at no specific time of the year anymore.

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  11. Thank you. I've been trying to recreate my grandmother,s crostoli....she died in february. Cooking with her was the highlight of my childhood...and tonight my 3 kids are covered in smiles and powdered sugar! Be blessed! Amy

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