February is a good time to be a dessert lover in Florence
In the fall, when Florence's supermarkets and pastry shops were full of schiacciata con l'uva — the city's famous flatbread studded with juicy red grapes — I wrote that I couldn't wait for my next seasonal-dessert obsession.
That sweet and jammy grape bread faded away in November and was soon replaced with Christmassy specialties, like panettone (good, but familiar to me because my Mom gets one as a gift every year and makes French toast with it) and fruit-cakey panforte — eh, if I wanted to snack on almonds and dried fruits, I'd just eat granola!
Since neither of these typical December desserts tickled my fancy, I mostly stuck to thick-as-sin cioccolata calda con panna, which is the richest hot chocolate you've ever tried (thanks to lots of real melted chocolate, whole milk, and cornstarch), as well as gelato and the occasional wild card, like torta di mele (a moist, cushiony apple cake) for my almost-daily sweet fix.
It's been a while, but I finally found a new seasonal dessert (or three) to obsess over.
We are now approaching Carnevale, Italy's pre-Lent celebration best known for its elaborate masks, costumes, parties, and parades — or, to me, for its vast production of fried desserts. Tuscany (and Florence in particular) has three main Carnevale desserts that you'll find from late January through early March.
First, there are cenci, or crispy "rags" of deep-fried dough dusted with powdered sugar. I wouldn't make a trip to a pasticceria just for these, but they are nice with coffee.
Then there's schiacciata alla Fiorentina, which is not made from the same savory dough as the city's typical sandwich bread but is, like schiacciata, baked in a large flat pan. I like this golden, orange-flavored sheet cake best when it's split into two layers with a slathering of chantilly cream in the middle, which makes each bite so fluffy and creamy. On top, there's a generous dusting of powdered sugar and Florence's signature giglio (fleur de lis) done in cocoa powder right in the center.
But my favorite Carnevale treats, surprisingly, are frittelle di riso, which are like doughnut holes if they were made of sugary, orange-scented rice. (I say surprisingly because doughnuts are never my first choice of dessert; I usually find that if I have just one, I feel terrible from all the sugar and frying oil.) These are the epitome of "the perfect bite." The rice is cooked until it's super soft, so instead of detecting the individual granules when you bite into the fritters, you get more of a pudding-y sensation. Then they're quickly fried and coated in granulated sugar, which gives them a little crunch on the outside. They're also often filled with raisins, which I welcome in just about anything sweet.
The best frittelle di riso I've tried come from Savelli Frittelle, a wooden stand in Siena's central square that's only open from January through March. Sold in greasy paper packages of four, those fritters cost the best euro I've ever spent — and are probably the best thing I've ever eaten while sitting on the ground.
I'll be using Carnevale "research" as an excuse to eat these desserts all month throughout Tuscany — and if I happen to make it to the South, I might even try Naples' sanguinaccio dolce, a sweet chocolate pudding made with citrus, cinnamon, and freshly drained pig's blood. It's a celebration of Carnevale, sure, but also, in truer Italian fashion, the annual period of pig slaughtering.