The festive season brings on the urge to create beauty and transform our surroundings into something magical and mysterious – an urge which seems to be at the heart of the fanciful figures, wreaths, illuminations and other embellishments we stage on and in our homes. The same desire is also at the heart of the opulent ribbons and bows with which we wrap our most anticipated mystery, the gift beneath the tree. What’s in it? Is it what I hope it is, or something even better?
Untying the bow and releasing the ribbons is the ritual build-up – part of the whole experience of giving and receiving a gift, and something that the opening of a generic gift bag definitely lacks. For me, a gift is as much about the act of creating a beautiful wrapping as it about how that creation stirs the recipient’s imagination. And although I love glitz and glitter, for the coup-de-grace, I favour simple elegant, organza or satin bows and ribbons which are timeless and traditional.
Another timeless and traditional element of my Christmas celebration is making Cenci (Chen-Chee), which are ribbons of sweet almond-flavoured pastry twisted into bows and deepfried until pale golden, light and crispy, then blessed with a shower of icing sugar. These Italian pastries can be found all over the country from Florence to Fiesole and Venice to Varapodio (my family’s hometown). They are also a favourite in Poland where they are called Chrusciki. Christmas just isn’t complete without them.
So, I’d like to offer you a little bit of Christmas from Italy (or Poland) from my family to yours. I hope you enjoy making and eating the Cenci. perhaps they’ll become a part of your tradition too. Buon Appetito!
Cenci (makes 3.5 – 4 dozen)
- 1½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- ¼ cup pastry flour
- ¼ tsp salt
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 4 tsp almond extract
- 3 eggs
- 2 tbsp granulated sugar
- 1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- 4 cups vegetable oil for frying
- 3 cups icing sugar for dusting
- In a small bowl sift together flour, salt and baking powder
- In a medium bowl beat together the eggs, 2 tbsp granulated sugar and almond extract until the mixture is pale yellow and has the consistency of a loose batter; it should treble in volume
- Fold in the flour gradually until no lumps appear; the dough should be a little sticky but come together in a ball; if it’s too loose, add a little more pastry flour
- Turn dough out onto a well-floured board and knead lightly and briefly to achieve a smooth, barely sticky, elastic texture; do not over work or incorporate too much flour as this toughens the pastry
- Dust the ball of dough with flour, wrap in plastic and let rest refrigerated for an hour
- Cut the dough into 4-cm (1½-inch) pieces, roll each out into a thin wide ribbon
- Cut each ribbon into 4 to 5-cm (1½” to 2”) long sections
- To make the bows, twist each piece of dough once in the middle, slightly stretching the ends as you twist to make it as thin as possible; then pinch it in the centre to secure
- Fill a heavy-bottom medium pot with 7.5 cm (3 inches) of oil, heat to 150˚ Celsius (300˚ Fahrenheit)
- Prepare a baking tray, lining it with paper towels and place a cake rack over it
- Float three to four bows in the hot oil (more and you will overcrowd), stretching gently again before you put them in
- Watch them closely as they brown very quickly; turn each over once and remove with tongs just as they begin to colour
- Drain on the prepared rack
- If flour clouds the oil, cool, strain, top-up volume, bring oil up to heat and continue frying
Line a tray with waxed paper, cover it with one layer of Cenci, spoon a good deal of icing sugar into a sieve and dust pastry generously, turning to coat both sides; repeat with remaining pastry. Cenci will keep up to two weeks in a cookie-tin lined with waxed paper.
Loretta Gatto-White is a Nova Scotia food writer, columnist and essayist whose work has appeared in various newspapers, anthologies and on the internet at her site www.saveurfaire.net.
First published in Accenti Magazine, Issue 24.