I love the idea of cooking for the season; food made specifically for that time of year and no other. Nothing rings more true than the cooking and baking we do at Christmas. What aromas and flavours come to mind when you think of Christmas? Cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, citrus and sage are classics. Perhaps your family has specific meals and desserts that take front and centre at your Christmas table and these have been ingrained in your Christmas memories. I’ve already told you about one of our family traditions, cabbage rolls. For me, other classic Christmas flavours are chestnuts that are roasted until soft and creamy. My grandmother’s freshly grated horseradish that accompanies our turkey and roast pork (I know, it’s not the traditional roast beef normally paired with horseradish, but trust me, it’s just as good). Another is my grandfather’s hot loza with sugar. Loza is a brandy made from grapes – like grappa. The loza is heated and boiled with sugar and served as an aperitif in little espresso cups and sipped like tea. It’s the Croatian version of hot toddy’s, but much, much stronger. Just a quick whiff of the vapours can get your head spinning, but once you get past that, the sweet warmth of the liquor is really something special. Later this week I will share with you another must have at our table, but today I’ll tell you about one that is not a particular tradition to my family, but I know is a favourite among many others, fritule (frree-too-le).
I chose to share this recipe with you because it was one of those foods that encompasses everything we associate with Christmas. It has the zest of citrus that is abundant and at the height of their season right now. Plump raisins speckle the sweet and airy dough, a common ingredient of Christmases past when fruit was unavailable in winter and dried fruits were used instead. The addition of rum or brandy represent the indulgences of the season; a time of celebration and good cheer. A bonus, if you’re looking for another reason to add booze to your desserts, specifically fried desserts, apparently the addition of alcohol prevents the dough from absorbing extra oil during the frying process! And finally, the preparation of frying has always been considered a special treat, so what better time to consume these lovely balls of fried dough, than at Christmas!
In fact, fritule (in th the Dalmatian dialect, in other parts of the country they’re called uštipci – uu-sh-teep-tsi) has long been a tradition in the Mediterranean region of Europe. Italians have a similar treat, zeppole, also called friotle, the name dependent on the region. And like our neighbours to the west, these treats are shared in the warmth of the season and company of good friends and family. However, don’t get these confused with their Canadian imposters, the timbit. These have been around ages before the timbit and unlike the timbit, fritule were not a solution to a doughnut hole epidemic Tim Horton’s faced (at least that’s how Timmy’s folklore goes). No, these lovely, airy fried balls of Christmas in your mouth are not the cast away remnants of the North American waist expander, but a seasonal treat full of tradition and Christmas flavours so go ahead and feel free to indulge.
There are many recipes out there for fritule. Some are made with potato, others with yogurt or sour cream. The recipe I have here for you is a simple one, very close to krafne in ingredients and preparation. Feel free to be generous with the flavourings. If you like more raisins, add more raisins. A fan of cinnamon, add an extra 1/2 a teaspoon. More rum? Sure, why not? It’s Christmas! In fact, the alcohol cooks away in the frying process so don’t be afraid to add a little more, for more flavour of course! Finally, upon doing some research on fritule, I read that many pour some rakija over them after cooking, or even the next day as they become more dense (rakija is the generic term for any fruit brandy, the most common varieties being loza, made from grapes and šljivovica made of plums). I don’t know if I would pour white lightning over fritule (that’s what I call loza and šljivovica for its clear colour and blinding potency that makes you see stars when you throw it back) but maybe a little diluted rum would do the trick.
For a special treat on how to prepare fritule and a taste of Dalmatian culture and music watch this short clip on fritule being prepared. It’s in Croatian, but even if you don’t understand the language the culture of the region really does come through.
For the yeast
1/2 cup warm milk
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon flour
1 package active dry yeast
1/3 cup raisins
1 tablespoon šljivovica loza or brandy, diluted with 1 tablespoon of water
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup sugar
1 package vanilla sugar
Zest of 1 lemon
Zest of 1 orange
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
2 eggs at room temperature
1/4 cup dark rum
1 to 1 and 1/2 cups warm water
Oil for frying
Icing sugar and 1 package of vanilla sugar for sprinkling
In a measuring cup, warm the milk in the microwave, add the sugar, flour and yeast and stir gently to dissolve. Leave to rise and double in volume, in a warm area of your kitchen while you prep the rest of the ingredients.
In a large bowl, combine the flour, salt, both sugars, zest, cinnamon and nutmeg. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs and add the rum. Create a well in the flour and pour in the egg mixture and the yeast. Add the raisins that have been soaking, along with the brandy. With a wooden spoon, begin to beat the mixture. Add 1 cup of the warm water and beat mixture again. The batter should be quite loose, similar in consistency to pancake batter. If it has not reached this consistency, add the rest of the water, or a little more than if necessary. Leave the mixture to rise for an hour, covered with a tea towel in a warm place in your kitchen.
In a shallow pan, heat enough oil to fry the fritule (oil should come half way up the pan). When hot, begin spooning the batter into the oil using a teaspoon. The dough might stick to the spoon, so dip it into the hot oil every so often before spooning the batter. Fry until lightly browned and then flip to cook evenly. Remove and drain on a paper towels and repeat the process until you have used up all the batter.
Mix about a 1/4 cup of icing sugar with one package of vanilla sugar and with it, sprinkle the fritule generously. Place in a decorative bowl or platter and serve warm or at room temperature.