On Frying, Flamingos & Frittelle
Little Instant Ricotta Doughnuts with Saffron & Blood Orange
‘Instant doughnuts’ has a whiff of the impossible about it, the sort of thing a self-assured YouTube advert might shout at you from the corner of your computer screen as you harmlessly search for cushion covers. Nevertheless, instant doughnuts are what these are; little, soft, golden nuggets of the incredible made edible. Delicious and utterly doable, the perfect thing for Carnival.
It’s Carnival season, you see, and here that generally means frying. I noticed my Thursday class was a little quieter than usual, only to be told promptly by Davide, his mask slipping below his nose in excitement, that it was Giovedi Grasso (Fat Thursday) and so Sofia and Andrea were at home. I wondered momentarily what they were doing this Fat Thursday at home. Hand-shaping and frying little doughnuts with their grandmothers, I hoped; playing video-games and eating sweets in their bedrooms, I suspected.
The week for me went on as usual and then Sunday was mini Sartiglia, the Oristano Carnival celebration which I first saw 5 years ago today, the thing that made me fall in love with Sardinia in the first place (it was – admittedly - mostly for the food, family and festivities rather than the race itself, though it is spectacular). Sartiglia is a wonderful and madly Medieval horse tournament where elaborately costumed and masked riders parade through the city centre performing tricks and attempting to skewer a hanging star. (A crude summary; I will write about it properly as soon as my Italian is good enough for me to research adequately. We live in hope). Of course Covid had put pay to the last year and cast its ominous shadow over the one before that, but this year they managed to organize a bite-sized version where a few costumed riders paraded a small part of the usual course.
The next celebration (and another mini Sartiglia) happens on Tuesday, which is the official Martedi Grasso, and the last day of luxury before the official beginning of lent, and 40 days of fasting like Jesus in his desert (no dessert). In England we have our final hurray with Pancakes, in Sardinia it is usually something yeasted and fried; either a snake-like coil of Zippole (a sort of simple doughnut perfumed with orange and acqua vita) or Chiacchiere (I have written about these before here) or these little ricotta Frittelle.
I have vague memories of Pancake Day as a child, Jiff lemon on hand in either mini green bottle or yellow plastic lemon, but the smell of frying and the proliferation of paper napkins and powdered sugar is a new sensation for me, welcome though it is. This year I had a go at making these frittelle, lacking the time and space to do real doughnuts it seemed a good compromise.
In Sardinia these little fried morsels are known as Arrubiolus, which is derived from the word Arrubio/Arrubio, meaning red, in tribute to the deep sunset orange they acquire inside from the saffron and their red-golden finished fried appearance. A happy-making fact is that Flamingos, which fleck the Sardinian skyline and glow pinkly luminous in turquoise lakes near us in Oristano, are known as Sa Genti Arrubia, or ‘the red people’. The sight of their long-legged forms flying overhead, black-tipped wings and toucan-cartoon beaks is one I will never tire of. I can never get the Alice in Wonderland idea of them as golf clubs out of my mind. Still, they are another Sardinian wonder worth mentioning.
Away from the lakes and back to the kitchen. Similar ricotta-based fritters are made all over Italy and known by various different names, such as Castagnole (little chestnuts) or Frittelle.
The idea is extremely straightforward; a simple batter lightened by baking powder and deep fried then dusted in sugar. The traditional flavourings are orange or lemon zest, and the saffron is a firmly Sardinian addition. The batter is essentially cake-mix consistency, and two spoons scoop it neatly into hot frying oil. In they plop, up they bob, out they come; golden and glistening. Fried cakes, small and sweet and perfumed, and wonderfully light, they stay moist for days if you keep them in an airtight container.
Makes around 10-12.
3 tbsp sugar
Good pinch of salt
Grated zest of 1 lemon and 2 oranges
100g plain flour
50g potato flour (optional but helps make them extra light – can use 150g all plain flour if preferred)
A good pinch of saffron threads, soaked in 1tbsp warm water, or a pinch of ground saffron
½ tsp of vanilla extract (optional and if not using lievito)
2 tsp baking powder or half a bustina of Italian lievito (usually flavoured with vanilla)
1 litre of frying oil (I use groundnut, peanut or sunflower)
Sugar, either granulated or icing, or honey if you prefer.
Whisk the eggs and ricotta until smooth. Add the sugar, salt, citrus zest, vanilla extract and the flours, baking powder/lievito and saffron and whisk until you have a smooth batter.
Heat the oil in a deep pan until it swirls (it must be around 190 but not so hot that it’s smoking, otherwise it will burn the frittelle). Test it with a piece of bread if you like: the bread should bob and fry nicely, becoming brown after 30 seconds or so.
Now, using two teaspoons, scoop little blobs of the mixture into the hot oil (they should be the size of walnuts, and will swell slightly whilst cooking). Turn them over as they cook to make sure they are evenly brown on all sides.
Scoop them out onto some absorbent paper and then roll them in the sugar of your choice whilst still hot.
They are also very good drizzled with honey if you’d prefer.