I’ve been to Venice a handful of times, but only once during Carnival, the annual festival leading up to Lent. It was miserable. It was cold and damp and drizzling. I had just suffered a breakup and yet somehow I ended up in Venice, at Carnival, with the offending party himself. I’m not sure why we didn’t cancel our plans. Perhaps he didn’t have the heart and I didn’t have the guts. But there we were, amid a sea of other young people, except everyone else was having the time of their lives. The train station was packed with kids lounging on backpacks and bedrolls, the narrow streets were choked with moving bodies. Every college student from across Europe and beyond appeared to be in Venice.
Wherever I looked, it seemed, couples were ardently embracing (on purpose, no doubt, to taunt me); groups of friends in colorful face paint and costumes talked and laughed cheerfully as they criss-crossed the bridges and the piazzas (surely they were mocking me). The windows of the many pasticcerie brimmed with piles of fried sweet treats to celebrate the season (temptation!). Indeed, I knew that all across Italy, fried dough in hundreds of variations—fritters, knots, rings, mini doughnuts, and so on—was being consumed with gusto, if not gluttony. Naturally, all of this exuberance only compounded my miserable misery. I don’t think I ate one sugar-encrusted fritter.
In fact, I can’t remember a single meal or even what I ate at all (not the normal order of things for me). We didn’t have a place to stay so we slept in the car, which was parked in a vast lot somewhere in the hinterlands. We washed in the public pay-to-use restrooms. It was only for a couple of days but it felt like a lot longer. We made a half-hearted attempt at revelry with some face paint but it tanked. Toward the end of our stay the rain turned to snow, and even though the city was crowded it suddenly became very quiet. It was magical, almost dreamlike. And beautiful. The city was beautiful. And that’s when I woke up. In my head I heard the words so famously sung by Billie Holiday, “Unrequited love’s a bore.” Boy, was she right. When he dropped my off at my aunts’ house in Rome I said good-bye and really never looked back.
That was a long time ago, back in the 1980s. My most recent visit to Venice was in March 2008 when my husband and I took our two kids. As you might imagine it was a very different trip, especially since I was seeing the city from my children’s eyes. Which is to say, like this: WOW THIS PLACE IS ONE BIG MAZE LOOK AT ALL THE COOL MASKS AND SPARKLY TRINKETS CAN I BUY SOME CAN WE BUY ANOTHER BAG OF FRITTERS PLEEEEASE??? (even though Carnival had ended and it was Lent, the bakeries seemed to be conveniently ignoring this fact.) We walked for miles. We walked across the Bridge of Sighs and visited the dungeons. We marveled at the sparkling fish and the many kinds of radicchio on display at the Rialto market. We went to Peggy Guggenheim’s palazzo to see her extraordinary art collection and to stand on the terrace overlooking the water and watch the traffic go by on the Grand Canal. We ate cornetti dipped in cappuccino and hot chocolate in the morning and murky black squid ink pasta and seafood risotto in the afternoon. And lots of sugary fritters in between.
As you can plainly tell, my more recent memories of Venice are far sweeter than the old ones. Even so, I don’t think I would go back and change a thing (except maybe the part where I had to wash up in the public restroom). After all, life is not lived in a vacuum, is it? It’s all connected—the good, the bad…and the fried.
There are countless variations on Carnival fritters. In Venice, you will find them made with diced apples and raisins, and with pureed winter squash. I happened to have some mashed Japanese sweet potato in my fridge, so that is what I put into my batter. Take note that making these fritters can be a little bit tricky---the oil should be hot, but not so hot that they brown too quickly. Otherwise you will end up with fritters that aren't fully cooked inside. Be sure to turn them in the oil a few times so that they cook evenly. You can either roll the fitters in granulated sugar or dust them with confectioners' sugar; I prefer the dusting as it makes the fritters look festive, like they've been dusted with snow.
- 1/2 cup mashed cooked Japanese sweet potato, sweet potato, or well-drained winter squash (see Cook's Note)
- Finely grated zest of 1 orange
- 1 large egg, lightly beaten
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
- Vegetable oil for frying
- Granulated sugar or confectioners' sugar for rolling or dusting
Combine the mashed sweet potato with the orange zest in a mixing bowl. Add the egg and sugar and work them in thoroughly with a wooden spoon or silicon spatula. Add the flour, baking powder, and nutmeg and stir well, until you have a thick, smooth batter. Let the batter rest for 15 to 20 minutes.
Pour enough oil into a 9-inch or 10-inch skillet to achieve a depth of about 1 inch. Heat the oil over medium high. Test it by dropping in a tiny dollop of batter; it should sizzle gently and the batter should puff up quickly. Use two teaspoons to form rounded mounds of batter---no more than a scant teaspoon of batter for each fritter---and drop the mounds into the hot oil. Take care not to crowd the skillet. Fry the batter, turning the fritters from time to time, until they are well browned on the outside. With a mesh strainer or slotted spoon, transfer the fritters to a paper towel-lined plate. Let them cool slightly; then roll in sugar or dust with confectioners' sugar. Enjoy!
Cook's Note: Japanese sweet potatoes are similar to the standard sweet potatoes available in grocery stores. However, their skin is purple-red and their flesh is creamy white. They have a lovely, sweet almost floral taste that makes them great for using in desserts. They are also delicious roasted or baked in their skins. For this recipe, I baked a whole Japanese sweet potato in its skin, wrapped in foil, then let it cool and scooped out the flesh.