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Chiacchieres for Christmas
The holidays often put us into a bind. First, we want to show our spirit with some fancy cooking. But with work, family, shopping and all the rest of the stuff we need to do there’s little time to run away to the kitchen and whip up something scrumptious.
To cure that dilemma Carmen Zilio Thompson of Yuba City offers a simple recipe that’s sure to perk up any holiday party – a cookie that she learned to make as a child in Italy.
“I picked this recipe because it’s the holiday season and I thought it would be easy to make and also because my hairdresser suggested it. These cookies are usually made during Carnival, but from the time my kids were small I’ve made them especially for Christmas,” she said.
“If you go to northern Italy around February they’ll be in every store. You can find them everywhere. They go by different names. I call them Chiacchiere or Carnival sweetmeats, but they’re also known as Bungie or Cenci.” Carmen, who came to Yuba City 22 years ago with her husband, Lewis, and two children, grew up in Conselve, Italy, a city southwest of Venice. That was also where her aunts taught her to cook.
“As I was growing up I watched what they were doing. When I was a teenager I didn’t like how my mom cooked so I took over.” As Carmen demonstrated, Chiacchieres are easy to make and they only need a few ingredients: flour, eggs, sugar, lemon and orange zest, dry white wine and a piece of bread.
To make it clear, the bread doesn’t go into the Chiacchiere but it is a vital step to ensure the cookies are cooked just right. “When I cook, I put a piece of bread in the hot oil because that way the cookies don’t burn or get any of the dark pieces on them. I grew up doing this – my aunts did it, my grandmother did it, who am I to change it?” she explained.
The cookie production is broken down into three parts, each one as important as the other if the guests are going to enjoy this sweet treat. The first is mixing dough, the second is the rolling and the last is the frying. In many of recipes for Chiacchiere, butter is used in the dough, but not Carmen’s.
“I don’t use butter because I think it makes the dough flat.” What does she use instead? She said the trick is to use dry white wine because it helps makes the dough rise like yeast. She also said some people use whisky instead of the wine. Carmen said she sometimes adds vanilla or almond extract to give her Chiacchiere a little different flavor. Carmen’s dough production appears deceptively easy.
First, she poured out the three cups of flour onto her kitchen counter and made a little depression in the center for the other ingredients. Then once the eggs, zest, sugar and wine were added she folded it all together and began to knead it.
She said it should only takes about five minutes of kneading to thoroughly mix it all together. The way she can tell if the dough is ready is when it feels like a pie crust – not sticky and not too hard. If it is too sticky she said it just needs a little more flour, and if it’s too hard it needs more wine.
Carmen also warned not to over-knead the dough, just knead enough for everything to be a nice yellow color. Once the dough is mixed she let it rest for about an hour.
When the time was up, Carmen went onto the second step – rolling out the dough into thin strips. She did this with her pasta machine, but she said if you don’t happen to have one you can use a rolling pin. Whatever method you use, the dough must be rolled so thin that light can been seen through it.
It was at this time that Carmen pointed out that it’s important to use a light dusting of flour on the dough so that it doesn’t stick to your fingers or the cloth it’s laid on. Once Carmen had the dough at the right thickness she used a pastry cutter to cut them into one-inch by four-inch strips and make small cuts into the strips.
Turning to the stove where she had a large skillet filled with an inch or so of hot oil, Carmen dropped in that piece of bread. When it began to bubble she knew the oil was hot enough. This was when her husband of 32 years knew to appear.
Carmen explained that it takes two people to cook the Chiacchiere; one to bring the dough and the other to cook it because there’s no time to move away. Once the dough begins to fry it cooks quickly and you don’t want it to burn. Carmen also advised not to lay the strips of dough on top of each other because they have a tendency to stick together.
Using two forks, Carmen gently stirred the dough while watching it closely. Once it turned just the right shade of golden brown she deftly lifted the pieces, drained off the excess oil and put them into a large bowl. As she stacked the pieces she used a wire strainer to sprinkle the powdered sugar onto the Chiacchiere.
When she was asked how many servings the three cups of flour makes Carmen fudged her numbers. One reason she might have been unsure is that when her back was turned Lewis wasted no time sampling the treats. “They’re really addictive,” he said.
Carmen said the treats can be made a day ahead, but no more than that because it’s important that they stay crisp. She also advised to never store them in the refrigerator because that’s a sure way to make them soggy.
Servings: 10 (Depends on the appetites of the guests and how many are eaten before the guests arrive)
3 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup Sugar (half)
5 tablespoons dry white wine
Pinch of salt
1 orange or lemon
2 cups cooking oil
1 slice white bread
Pour the flour onto a working surface, make a well and add the eggs, sugar, salt orange zest and white wine. Mix and work into a dough. Shape the dough into a ball and let sit for one hour.
Using a pasta maker or rolling pin, roll dough into very thin long length strips. Cut into 1 inch by 4 inch strips using a pastry cutter then make slits in the middle of the strips.
Pour the oil into a large shallow pan and bring to frying temperature. Drop piece of bread into the oil, when it begins to bubble and fry it’s time to cook the Chiacchiere.
Gently drop the thin strips of dough into the hot oil and let them cook until they’re golden brown. When done, drain off the oil and place in a large bowl. Sprinkle with the powdered sugar and serve.