Old-timers here say it doesn’t snow here the way it used to when they were young. Whenever the conversation turns to weather, which happens during just about every chat we have, we learn about the ferocious winters of old, with howling winds and weeks and weeks of snow. Nowadays, they say, we might have a light dusting of snow in the Valle d’Itria, but it will be gone in the morning as though it never happened.
I don’t know about those decades-old apocryphal weather moments, but we’re having a snowstorm right now, complete with layers of frothy, fat flakes blanketing lampposts, terraces and cars. And it’s cold . . . colder than we’ve ever experienced here. Sunday pranzo is always a quiet time in Martina Franca, but the falling snow has muffled even the neighbors’ televised airing of Sunday mass at the Vatican, turning our little baroque town into a soft, winter white village.
Through it all, our neighbor, Anina, came to the door bundled from head to toe and bearing a platter full of just-made chiacchiere. Martedi Grasso (Fat Tuesday) is just around the corner, so she wanted to make sure we tasted these traditional carnival treats before it’s too late. Versions of these addictive fried wafers dusted with vanilla-flavored powdered sugar are found all over Italy at this time of year, all bearing different names and often slightly different shapes. In Puglia, they go by chiacchiere, or chatter, which is what they sound like when you bite into them.
Quaresima or Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and with it, a farewell to indulgence of all kinds. We are, however, in Italy, so it’s hard to imagine that fun will be completely off the menu. In the meantime, the snow white powdered sugar covering Anina’s still hot and deliciously crackle-y chiacchiere reminds us to enjoy the moment, falling snow and all.
Chiacchiere di Carnevale—Crunchy Carnival Pastries
3 cups flour, plus a little more for rolling out the dough
1/3 cup + 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
Kosher or sea salt, to taste
5 Tbsp. butter, cut into cubes and left to soften at room temperature
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2-3 Tbsp. white wine or grappa
About 4-6 cups extra virgin olive oil (for frying)
Powdered sugar for dusting (1 to 1 1/2 cups)
Mix together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. On a wooden board, make a well with the dry ingredients. Break the eggs into the center of the well, and gently whisk them with a fork to break the yolks. Add the vanilla extract, two tablespoons of the wine or grappa and the butter.
With the fork, stir the flour mixture from the sides into the center of the well until all the flour mixture has been incorporated. Gently knead the dough together with your hands until all the ingredients are combined. Don’t overwork the dough—just knead it enough so that all the ingredients form a fairly homogenous ball. If the dough doesn’t come together, add one more tablespoon of the wine. After you’ve kneaded the dough, it should be just a little sticky to the touch. Cover the dough with a slightly damp kitchen towel and let it rest unrefrigerated for about 30 minutes.
Once the dough has rested, divide it into two pieces. On a lightly floured wooden surface, roll out one of the pieces of dough to a 1/8th inch thickness. With a fluted pastry wheel, cut the dough into 2×4-inch rectangles. You can cut the dough into other shapes, or twist the rectangles into bow ties if you like, but the rectangular shape is traditional.
Heat the oil in a deep pan until it reaches 375ºF. You’ll know the oil is ready when you place some dough (use some of the scraps from the edges) into the oil and it immediately bubbles.
Gently place about 5 or 6 rectangles of dough in the oil (don’t drop them in or allow the oil to splatter). Don’t overcrowd the pan, which lowers the oil temperature. Fry the chiacchiere until they are golden brown, about three to four minutes. With a slotted spoon, turn the chiacchiere while they are frying to ensure that each side is evenly colored. Drain the fried chiacchiere on paper towels and cool slightly, then dust each chiacchiere with powdered sugar.
Makes about three dozen chiacchiere, which will be devoured in one sitting. They’re lovely served with a Moscato di Trani, a Pugliese DOC dessert wine made almost exclusively from the moscato bianco varietal.