18 February 2010

AUNTIE PASTA: I'll Take Some of Those...Ahhh.... Fried Cookies

SARONNO, Italy - You can call them chiacchiere, or you can call them frappe or bugie or even guanti, but in reality they are all the same confectioner sugar sprinkled fried cookie that signal the start of Italy's Carnival in Italy.

My Aunt Louise has been making and selling those same fried cookies, that she calls guanti, for the past 50 years.These days it's my cousins Etta and Barabara that do most of the work but Aunt Louise, who just turned 99, still folds boxes and helps out when she can. It's an intensive labor of love that no one wants to give up on as the orders keep coming in. Traditions run strong in upstate New York and for many families a wedding or holiday wouldn't be the same without a large sugary tray of Aunt Louise’s Old Country Bakery Guanti.

As a kid, every trip we made to visit my Aunt resulted in a trunk full of cookies to take back home. And no one complained. Personally I have never tasted any quite as good as hers anywhere in Italy, and yes, maybe I am just a little prejudice.

Most of the leading Italian food magazines feature articles this month showing how to make them. The cookies my Aunt Louise makes are a little different than the ones I see here in Saronno. Hers are bigger and because she slits the dough and passes one end of it through the opening before they are fried, they look like bow ties. Here they simply cut the dough into strips and fry it. It’s certainly easier and faster but there are fewer nooks and crannies for the powdered sugar to hide, and that’s what makes them so lip smacking good.

While even after all these years I still can't get excited about Carnival – or Mardi Gras as it’s called in New Orleans – I’m always happy when the trays of guanti start appear in the windows of the rosticcerie in town. Can Spring be far behind?

In Venice and Viareggio Carnival is a huge festa. There are parades with fancy floats and people dress up and walk around and look at each other while kids throw confetti in the air and squirt silly string on everything. They do pretty much the same thing in Saronno except there is a lot less dressing up and a lot more confetti throwing and silly string squirting.

Carnival as we know it today started out as a Pagan Roman festival called the Saturnalia. It was a time when slaves and masters, with their faces hidden behind masks, could eat and drink together as equals and dance in the streets with no fear of reprisals. And because Saturnalia was so much fun, the early Christians were more than a bit reluctant to give it up. So the eat, drink and make merry part was incorporated into Christianity, but with a slight twist.

The Christians started the transformation by giving the festival a new name: Carnivale. While it sounds festive to us now, the word comes from the Latin “caro” meat and “vale”, farewell, which, when you put them together really means say bye bye to meat and hello to those 40 days of abstinence known as Lent. And so that's where we are.

Sometimes, when I walk past the little pink Church of San Francesco and see the plaque that says the church was built on the site of a Pagan temple, I wonder what kind of Italy I would be living in if the Roman emperor Flavius Valerius Constantinus, aka Constantine the Great, hadn't supported Christianity. Would I be out dancing in the streets of Saronno, laughing behind my mask? So far the vote is 5 to 1 that I would be doing just that.

Photos: 1. Italian Guanti; 2. Step by Step: Making Guanti

1 comment:

  1. OH - Your Aunt Louise's guanti! FABULOUS (bet you can't eat just one!) My Sicilian grandma used to make these in a pinwheel shape. Thanks for the info on Carnevale! Interesting.