Carnival is what makes the period preceding Lent memorable all over the Italian peninsula. If it is true that every festivity in Italy has traditional delicacies that accompany it, Carnival is no exception. Indeed, culinary customs contribute to create the joys of celebrating each holiday by rediscovering food traditions and myths while satisfying even the most demanding palates.
Historically, Carnival marks a period during which Christian people tend to eat and party in excess prior to Lent. This excess is transposed in the culinary tendency of preparing Lucullan sweets, including fritters.
Deep fried and sprinkled with powdered sugar, sometimes even filled with flavoured custard, chiacchiere are considered one of the milestones of Carnival food in Italy. Every region has its own variation and, from the top to the last edge of the Italian boot, people call this temptation by different names. So, you may encounter bugie, lasagne, pampuglie, crostoli, sfrappole, chiacchiere, frappe, or sprelle, but rest assured that this crispy and tasteful delight can recall the festive spirit of Carnival from the first bite! The same range of variety also goes for the shapes these tasty treats are cut into. Some come into square, diamond or long and narrow rectangular shapes. Others are tied into a knot or twisted. A pastry wheel can be used to cut out the pieces, forming zigzag edges.
Some denominations of these crispy slices of dough have an onomatopoeic derivation, for the name suggests the brittle sound they make when people eat them. Other names highlight the indulgent merrymaking and gaiety of the Carnival period, when people enjoy – more than other times of the year – gathering, talking and revel in delicious food and beverages. A mixture of the previous etymologies links the name chiacchiere (Italian for ‘chatters’) to the crunchy noise people do while eating them. You should try! It sounds like chatter!
Traditionally, the origin of chiacchiere seems to date back to ancient Roman times, when the pastry frictilia marked the celebration of the Saturnalia, the ancient feast of the god Saturn, the equivalent of today’s Carnival. These sweets were made with eggs and flour, then fried in lard. Frictilia – from Latin frictus, ‘fried’ – were considered a sweet for poor people, made in big quantities to be distributed to crowds celebrating in the streets.
However, we know how easily ancient customs can blur over the centuries by creating folkloristic and varied origins. In the case of chiacchiere, the recipe of ancient frictilia intermingles with a Neapolitan legend tracing the origins of these sweet crunchy pastries back to the wish of queen Margherita di Savoia. According to this version, the monarch asked her chef to make something special to offer to her guests during a light afternoon spent in chit chat. This could explain the name chiacchiere, namely chatter, chit chat, gossip. Bear in mind the plural form here, chiacchiere, because it is unthinkable to eat only a single chiacchiera and then walk away!
If you want to dispel any doubt about the impossibility of eating just one chiacchiera, this is one version of the many recipes you can find (highly depending on which part of Italy you visit!):
(makes about 3 dozens)
• 3 cups (375 grams) all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling out the dough
• 1/3 cup + 2 tablespoons (80 grams) granulated sugar
• 1 1/2 teaspoons (4 grams) baking powder
• Pinch of salt
• 2 eggs
• 5 tablespoons (75 grams) butter, at room temperature and cubed
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 2-3 tablespoons (35-50 ml) liquor (dry white wine, sweet Marsala, grappa)
• About 6 cups (1 1/2 litres) of oil for frying
• Powdered Sugar for dusting
Mix together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. On a board, make a well with the dry ingredients. Break the eggs into the centre, and gently whisk them with a fork to break the yolks. Add the vanilla extract, 2 tablespoons of the liquor and the butter. It is very important that the butter is very soft. With the fork, stir the flour mixture from the sides into the centre of the well until all the flour mixture has been mingled with the wet ingredients. When the ingredients form a homogenous ball, cover it with plastic wrap, and let it rest on the counter for 30 minutes.
On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough to 1/8-inch thick (2-3 mm). With a fluted pastry wheel, cut the dough into rectangles (or other forms). At this point, the dough is ready to be fried. Gently place the dough into the oil and fry your chiacchere until they are golden brown. Place on a plate with a paper towel to drain the excess oil and cool. Dust with powdered sugar and enjoy!
Napoli Unplugged. 2021. Kathy Ayer’s Chiacchiere Recipe – Napoli Unplugged. [ONLINE]
Available at: https://www.napoliunplugged.com/chiacchiere.html. [Accessed 26 February 2021].
In Rome Cooking. 2021. Chiacchiere: The Italian Carnival Sweet. [ONLINE]
Available at: https://www.inromecooking.com/blog/recipes/chiacchiere-italian-carnival-sweet/. [Accessed 26 February 2021].
Orizzonte Cultura. 2021. Frappe: storia e ricetta del dolce di Carnevale – ORIZZONTE CULTURA. [ONLINE]
Available at: https://orizzontecultura.com/frappe-storia-e-ricetta-del-dolce-di-carnevale/. [Accessed 26 February 2021].
Written by C. Serena Santonocito. She holds a PhD in “European Languages and Specialized Terminology” from the University of Naples “Parthenope”.