Note to those local to the DC area: I will be at the University Club of Washington, D.C.’s 26th Annual Meet the Author Night & Book Fair tonight, Dec. 2. Sixty authors and a fun, festive atmosphere. I’ll be signing copies of Ciao Biscotti. Come by and say hi!
* * * * * *
WELCOME to the 5th annual Dicembre Dolce (Sweet December), in which I post recipes for Italian sweets of the season.
I’m kicking things off with a gem that I picked up during my travels in Italy this past year: Lina‘s Ciambelline Fritte. I suppose you could call them doughnuts, but I prefer the more musical Italian name ciambelline [cham-bell-EEN-eh], which translates to “little rings.” There is, in fact, something distinctly Italian about these rings ~ the tender dough, shaped by hand rather than by using a cutter, is sweet but not too sweet, and subtly but unmistakably perfumed with citrus zest.
Lina is cousin by marriage to my culinary tour partners Michael and Nancy Morizio of Abruzzo Presto. On what was probably the most memorable day of our September tour, Lina and her husband, Abramo, opened their home to us and hosted a fantastic day of cooking, eating, and drinking. Lina and I gave a pasta workshop and Abramo gave us all a tour of his cantina. Afterwards, we sat together at a long table and ate our pasta and drank Abramo’s wine and communicated through a creative mix of Italian, English, Abruzzese, and hand gestures. Then Lina fried up batch after batch of these pillowy ciambelline, which we dipped in sugar and ate while they were still warm.
When I asked Lina if she might share her recipe she didn’t hesitate, pulling out a well-worn notebook and opening it to a well-worn page. For some reason it made me happy to see that like me, she hand-writes her recipes in plain old workaday notebooks meant for spatters and scribbles.
The day ended (not surprisingly) with shots of strong coffee, Centerba and other digestivi (liqueurs). In matters of hospitality and generosity, it’s hard to beat the Abruzzesi.
I finally had occasion to make the ciambelline here at home last Sunday as a sendoff for my son who was headed back to college after Thankgiving. I mixed the dough the “old-fashioned” way, mounding the flour on the countertop and adding the wet ingredients to a well in the center. The yeasted dough, enriched with eggs and a riced potato, is soft and pliable, a pleasure to handle. The ciambelline will keep for a day or so, but don’t deprive yourself of the experience of enjoying them hot out of the fryer and freshly dipped in cinnamon-sugar. They are as light as air and absolutely delicious.
* * * * * * *
A riced russet potato makes the dough for these lemon-scented doughnuts extra tender and easy to work with. Although you could mix the dough in a stand mixer, I prefer to do it by hand, as it keeps the dough light and airy. Plus, handling it just feels good. The fried ciambelline will last for about a day but are best still warm, freshly dipped in sugar.
- 1 large russet (baking) potato, 8 to 10 ounces
- 1 envelope (2 1/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast
- 1/2 cup milk, warmed to 110 F
- 3 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
- 2 large eggs, at room temperature
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
- Finely grated zest of 1 large lemon
- Vegetable oil for frying
- 3/4 cup sugar mixed with 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, for dipping
Put the potato in a pot with water to cover by 2 inches. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and boil until tender (you should be able to pierce through it with a cake tester or fork). Remove from the heat and pour out the water. Peel as soon as the potato is cool enough to handle and use a potato ricer to rice it into a bowl. Let cool.
Sprinkle the yeast into the warm milk and stir to dissolve (this takes a little time, as yeast does not dissolve as easily in milk as it does in water). Let proof until foamy, 15 to 20 minutes.
Mound the flour onto a clean surface and make a wide, shallow well in the center. Add the riced potato. Break the eggs into the well and add the sugar, salt, butter, and lemon zest. Whisk briefly with a fork to combine, taking care not to break the "wall" of flour. Carefully pour in the yeast and milk mixture and stir to make a thick slurry. Begin incorporating the flour from inside the wall, adding more as you go until the mixture is no longer sticky. Knead into a ball, incorporating just enough flour to make a soft, pliable dough (you may not use all the flour, or you may need a little more, depending on how sticky the dough is). Continue to knead for a few more minutes, until smooth.
Lightly coat the inside of a bowl with oil and place the dough inside, turning it to coat the surface. Cover with plastic wrap and let it rise in a warm spot until doubled in size, about 1 hour. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Cut a section of the dough and cover the rest with a clean towel or plastic wrap. Roll the piece of dough into a fat rope about the width of a finger. Sprinkle a tiny bit of flour on the rope if it is sticky. Cut the rope into 6-inch sections and form them into rings, pinching the ends to seal. Set the rings on a flour-dusted tray or board and cover lightly with plastic wrap or a clean cloth (I use cheesecloth). Continue to shape the dough into rings; you should end up with about 28. Let the rings rise for 30 minutes.
Pour oil to a depth of 2 inches into a deep-sided skillet. Heat on medium-high until the oil shimmers (375 F). Fry the ciambelline, a few at a time, turning them once or twice so they brown evenly on both sides. They fry quickly--within 30 seconds--so watch carefully. Transfer the ciambelline to a rack set over a paper towel-lined tray to drain for a few seconds, then dip them in the cinnamon sugar while still hot.
Although they will keep for a day, these ciambelline are best while still warm, irresistibly soft and tender. Don't hesitate ~ enjoy!