Today is Martedì grasso: Mardi Gras, the last of the seven days of Carnival.
Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. The Christian custom of “keeping” Lent, forty days of abstinence from meat and eggs before Easter, has fallen largely into disuse even among churchgoers. The etyology of Carnival (Carnevale in Italian) is to remove (i.e not eat) meat. During the days of Carnival, one ate the fatty foods that were to be prohibited during Lent. This culminated in the “fattiest” day of all, Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday).
Italy’s most famous Carnival is of course the one held in Venice, full of elaborate marks and intrigue. Its origins may go back to 1162, when there were celebrations in Piazza San Marco to celebrate the Venetian Republic’s victory over the belligerent Patriarch of Aquileia, Ulrich von Treven. After being captured, Ulrich was eventually released in exchange for payment of an yearly levy to Venice of a bull, twelve pigs and 300 loaves of bread. In an important element of the Venetian carnival for centuries, the animals were slaughtered in a public ceremony to commemorate the victory.
Carnival sponge cake
Schiacciata alla Fiorentina is a fluffy, delicately scented Mardi Gras cake from Florence. It is one of the dairy-free desserts that we make during our cooking courses in Italy. In the past, this cake was made with lard, the fat that was in popular use at the time. The one that we make on our cooking courses is made with sunflower oil. It is delicious filled with whipped cream, or just by itself! Happy Martedì Grasso!
- Juice and zest of 1 orange
- 150 g (3/4 cup) sugar (caster if you have it, if not, grind whatever you have finely)
- 2 eggs
- 250g (2 cups) plain (all-purpose) flour
- 5 tablespoons sunflower or olive oil
- 1 tablespoon (14 gr) of natural baking powder. Please read this.
- 150 ml (just over half a cup) milk
- Powdered sugar, to decorate
- Preheat the oven to 190°C/375°F.
- Beat together all the ingredients well, adding the natural baking powder last.
- Put the mixture in a 20×30 cm (9×13 inch) -or equivalent- cake tin lined with parchment paper, bake for 20-30 minutes, until a skewer inserted in the centre of the cake comes out clean.
- Allow to cool for at least 30 minutes. Turn out onto a plate.
- Serve by itself, or cut in half and layered with with whipped cream or confectioner’s custard (“crema pasticciera” in Italian).