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Lent : Italy's Carnival of Pastries

February 18, 1993|NICK MALGIERI

Until the Catholic Church's rules regarding the observance of Lent were made less stringent, it was a time of fasting--one full meal a day, the other two meals added together not equaling the main meal, and abstinence from meat and meat products.

A period of feasting preceded the rigors of Lent, perhaps so the faithful would have memories of rich food to tide them over until Easter. Carnival, the name of that pre-Lenten feasting season, derives from the Latin words "to take away meat."

Meat, meat-filled dishes and dairy foods (once also forbidden during Lent) are popular for carnival celebrations. The traditional Southern Italian Carnival menu is full of them: baked pasta dishes with rich meat sauces and fillings, meat pies, even meaty desserts and pastries.

The principal way to make a meaty sweet is to use animal fat in its preparation, which is why so many Italian sweets are prepared with lard. Frying was traditionally done in lard, meaning that fried foods were prohibited during Lent; that is why fried pastries are popular for the Carnival.

Fried foods are also much used during Carnival because so many of its traditions developed hundreds of years ago, before ovens were common in home kitchens. Frying was then the most practical way to prepare dough-based sweets at home.

The fried pastries here are traditional: cannoli alla Siciliana are hollow tubes of fried dough filled with sweetened, flavored ricotta. Probably a descendant of a Middle Eastern pastry brought to Sicily by Arab conquerors, cannoli were a traditional gift of Palermo's important families to each other at carnival time; they were always sent in packages of 12.

Galani , another fried carnival treat, is from Venice, though pastries of this type are made throughout Italy. The sweet, rich dough fries to a tender texture and is then further sweetened with a dusting of powdered sugar.

Though ravioli dolci (sweet ravioli) are usually fried, my version here is baked. The tender dough works well this way, and the resulting ravioli are somewhat less rich.

Though I don't use lard for baking on a regular basis, I do use it for Carnival pastries. If you prefer not to use it, substitute an equal quantity of butter, or whatever fat you typically use.

To fry the shells you will need about six hollow metal cannoli tubes. They are commonly available in hardware, department and cookware stores. If you have trouble locating them, they are also available through Maid of Scandinavia mail order (800) 328-6722. For best results, fill the cooked shells no more than an hour or two before serving, to retain maximum crispness.

CANNOLI ALLA SICILIANA 2 cups flour 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon 1/2 teaspoon unsweetened cocoa powder 2 tablespoons melted lard, butter or olive or vegetable oil 1 large egg 1/4 cup sweet Marsala or other sweet fortified wine 1 egg white, lightly beaten 1 1/2 quarts oil for frying Chocolate-Citron Ricotta Filling 1/4 cup unsalted pistachios, finely chopped Powdered sugar

Place flour, salt, cinnamon and cocoa in bowl of food processor and pulse several times to mix.

Combine lard, egg and Marsala in mixing bowl and beat lightly with fork. Add to processor bowl and pulse 6 or 8 times, until mixture appears to be mass of fine crumbs. Turn out onto work surface and knead together to form very firm dough, adding few drops of water if dough does not come together. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate about 1 hour.

Divide refrigerated dough into 4 equal pieces and roll out each to form 8-inch square. Since dough is fairly elastic, press hard with rolling pin, allowing each piece to stand few minutes if very resistant. Cut each square into 4 (4-inch) disks, using glass or cup with 4-inch diameter (place glass on dough without pressing and cut around with point of small, sharp paring knife). Roll out each disk once or twice more with rolling pin to make oval about 5 inches long.

Place 1 metal cannoli tube on length of oval and wrap 1 side of dough around tube. Moisten top of dough with bit of egg white and bring other side of dough over it. Press well to seal. Repeat with remaining metal tubes.

Heat oil to 350 degrees in deep fryer. Fry cannoli, 3 or 4 at time, until deep golden. Remove to pan lined with paper towels and slide fried dough off metal tubes immediately. Allow to cool while shaping and frying remaining dough.

No more than 2 hours before serving, use pastry bag with about 3/4-inch opening and no tip to fill shells from each end with Chocolate-Citron Ricotta Filling. Use small spatula to flatten ends straight and smooth. Sprinkle ends with pistachios. Immediately before serving, dust cannoli with powdered sugar. Makes 16 cannoli.

Chocolate-Citron-Ricotta Filling 2 pounds whole-milk ricotta 3/4 cup powdered sugar, sifted 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon 1/3 cup candied orange zest or citron, rinsed and finely chopped 1 ounce semisweet chocolate, finely chopped and sifted to remove smallest particles

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