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Every Tuesday, Italian expat Emiko Davies is taking us on a grand tour of Italy, showing us how to make classic, fiercely regional dishes at home.
When most people hear the word arancini, they think of Sicily's famous rice balls stuffed with meat ragu, crumbed, and deep fried. Less known are these special pastries from central Italy's Le Marche region. Both specialties get their name from arancia, Italian for orange; the former because of their round shape and golden color, the latter because of the intensely perfumed orange sugar that's rolled inside the sweet dough of these pastries.
They are made especially during Carnival season (Carnevale in Italian), a special time typically in February that includes an indulgent, lavish, and festive period of eating before the fasting period of Lent, which leads up to Easter. The ancient Christian tradition almost always includes rich (and usually fried) sweets.
Meat, dairy, and eggs were traditionally forbidden foods during Lent (the name Carnevale itself comes from the Latin words for "meat" and "to remove"), so Carnival sweets are usually rich doughs made with plenty of eggs, butter, and milk, deep fried in lard (today, more commonly, oil). In Tuscany, you'll find these are things like Frittelle di Riso (Rice Pudding Fritters), Florence's Schiacciata alla Fiorentina, or deep fried, twisted strips of pastry known in various places as chiacchere, frappe, or crostoli.
The region of Le Marche is known for these Arancini di Carnevale, a rich egg and milk-filled dough rolled up with orange zest and sugar (there is also a lemon version known as limoncini) and, traditionally, deep fried. More and more, you'll find this treat baked instead of fried (even Italians are health conscious). When baked, the pastries hold their shape better and you get a lovely, caramelized bottom from the melted sugar. Frying is a good option, too, though: The pastries will be fluffier and crispier all at the same time.
Eat them as they are or coat them with a dusting of confectioners' sugar or a dose of warm, runny honey. If you are after something a little sweeter, you could also add some orange marmalade to the orange-sugar filling, or, for a slightly more substantial frangipane-like filling, almond meal.
Orange Pinwheel Pastries (Arancini di Carnevale)
Makes about 24 arancini
2 1/2 teaspoons (7 grams) instant dry yeast
1 cup (250 ml) warm milk
4 3/4 cups (600 grams) flour
1 1/4 cups (250 grams) sugar, divided
1/4 cup (50 grams) melted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 to 4 large oranges, finely zested
Photos by Emiko Davies