When I remember my first time au pairing, I think mostly of doughnuts. They were called bombe, and I was obsessed. For two months I ate one every single day. I’d wait impatiently for their delivery to the beach bar, then savour them while they were still warm and oozing sweet creme patisserie. After finding myself stranded in a half-forgotten coastal resort in between Naples and Rome, these hot doughnuts were both freedom and pleasure.
In Venice I’ve found my own version of bombe – frittelle. They arrived in the cafes and bakeries here at the beginning of January and will stick around until Tuesday, the final day of Carnevale. The traditional fritole veneziane are small sugar-coated doughnuts, studded with sultanas and pine nuts and best served warm with an afternoon espresso. When they’re fresh out of the oven, the dough seems almost custard-like; light, moist, and fragrant with rum. They’re also slightly more modest in size than the bombe of my au pairing youth – just small enough to justify eating one with every espresso pitstop. And indeed, I’ve done just that.
In the same way that a tray of freshly made doughnuts came to define a summer spent by the sea, a pasticceria counter piled with frittelle will be the thing that I remember about Carnevale. Or at least the best thing. Venice has been almost unbearable over the past few weeks. With Carnival in full swing, the city is bursting with tourists, some of whom have ended up in our usually quiet enclave just off Ruga Giuffa. The costumed revellers, at first a source of bemusement, have now become unbearable; and the nightly rumble of music coming from St Mark’s is wearing thin.
But still, I’ll eat my final frittella on Tuesday with more than a little sadness. These small doughnuts have been a warming treat on these cold Venetian days, and I have come to love the way una frittella veneziana rolls off the tongue as I order one with my coffee.
Perhaps if I were a better Catholic I would do the same as the Venetians of old, and begin Ash Wednesday with a sugar fast as a penitential antidote to my frittelle gorge. But as it is, I will very much be ordering something sweet with my coffee (old habits die hard). Luckily Venice has no lack of sweet biscuits and pastries to fill that doughnut-shaped gap.
There are zaeti (an oval biscuit made of cornmeal, raisins and pine nuts), baicoli (a thin, crisp biscuit), and my favourite, essi di Burano. These sunshine yellow S-shaped biscuits are subtly sweet, flavoured with vanilla and rum, and perfect for dipping in coffee. While they may not fill a pastry shop with the same irresistible smell of hot oil and sugar, they are delicious, and probably far better for the waistline. In fact, the Burano tourist board website goes so far as to call them healthy. A reach, perhaps, but they do make a sturdy addition to the weekday biscuit tin.
With a bakery 30 seconds from our door, I’ve barely thought about making any of these sweet treats at home. But one day I won’t be in Venice, and I know I’ll come to yearn for these things when I’m back home, so I decided to bake a batch of essi – the simplest of all Venice’s sweet things. And that’s important, because in this kitchen we neither have a scale, a proper mixing bowl, nor a baking sheet.
Yet still these biscuits turned out wonderfully. They’re crisp but yielding, rich with egg yolks, and very easy to make with only a yoghurt pot for measuring. I’m sorry for not sharing a recipe for frittelle, the real romantic lead of this post. In the same way that the bombe of Lazio will forever exist in a balmy teenage summer, frittelle for me belong in a steamy pasticceria in Venice. Also, I know that the ones I make will never taste as sweet.
Bussolà Buranelli (or ‘Essi’)
These biscuits from Burano can be shaped either as a circle (Bussola Buranelli) or as an ‘S’ (Essi)
500g plain flour
6 egg yolks
1tsp vanilla extract (or 1 sachet of vanilla sugar if you’re in Italy)
the grated peel of 1 unwaxed lemon
pinch of salt
a splash of rum (optional)
Beat the egg yolks with the butter. Add the rum (if using), the flour, lemon zest, salt and vanilla. Work the mixture until you have a dough. Wrap in clingfilm and leave to cool in the fridge for 30 minutes.
Once cool, shape the sough into your S shapes. You can shape some into circles to create Bussolà Buranelli too. Arrange onto a baking paper lined sheet pan and bake at 170 degrees for about 20 minutes.