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A Sugar-Dusted, Liquor-Soaked Vestige of the Roman Carnival

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Italy’s most famous Carnival celebrations take place in Venice, Viareggio, and Putignano—spread out over the “boot”—but the annual pre-Lenten festivities once drew thousands of pilgrims to Rome.

Castagnole (Italian Doughnuts Rolled in Sugar)
Castagnole (Italian Doughnuts Rolled in Sugar)

In the middle ages, the Roman Carnival was a two-day affair of feasts, races, and bull fights in Testaccio and Piazza Navona; when Paul II of Venice took the tiara during the Renaissance, the festivities were stretched to nine days. Via del Corso, the mile-long road then called Via Lata, hosted horse, donkey, and water buffalo races. Floats full of masked performers rode through the streets and lavish banquets accompanied theatrical performances. Shortly after the Pope was defeated by the secular Unification movement, Carnival was banned—a victim of vanquished Papal power.

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But tiny vestiges of the defunct Roman Carnival survive: Children dress in costumes and toss fistfuls of colorful paper confetti (these will remain wedged in cobblestone cracks through Easter), and Romans of all ages indulge in seasonal sweets. In the weeks preceding Lent, we queue at bakeries and pastry shops for treats like castagnole. Though health-conscious Romans drive a market for a baked version, traditionally castagnole are chestnut-shaped fried dough balls rolled in sugar, soaked in liquor, or dusted with cacao. You don’t skimp when you’re honoring a carnival.

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Castagnole (Italian Doughnuts Rolled in Sugar)

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Makes 30
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3 large eggs
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • Pinch baking soda
  • 2 tablespoons tablespoons fresh orange juice (from 1/2 orange)
  • 1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
  • 3 tablespoons sambuca
  • 5 tablespoons sugar, plus more for coating
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup whole milk
  • Neutral oil (such as vegetable or canola oil), for frying

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Tags: italy, carnival, Rome, baking