Meaning “rags and tatters,” Cenci happens to be the Tuscan word for the same recipe, twisted into a “bow-ties” guise.
Fried dough figures in many cultures, with a long pedigree reaching thousands of years into the past and the history of cuisine ripples with examples of crispy, greasy, sweet-savory morsels. (But that’s the stuff of another post.)
Possibly related to a fictional character of Italian theater, Arlecchino (Harlequin), cenci represent the bits of cloth the poor guy scrounged up to make his own clothes, since he lacked money to buy a whole suit. (In some places, cooks cut the dough to be fried into diamond shapes, just like the headdress of Arlecchino.)
A quick glance at a whole range of Italian cookbooks sitting on my shelves revealed that no two writers propose the same recipe. Everything from lemon zest to Marsala and in between appears in these recipes, which indicates to me that women (for women invented this clever way of using basic ingredients — flour, eggs, grappa, oil, etc.) used whatever their pantries held at the time and made the most of it. The frying symbolizes the “Grasso” and “Gras” as in Martedi Grasso or Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday).
Frankly, some of the shapes of the various fried doughs popping up all over Italy during Carnevale remind me greatly of many of the sweets served during Ramadan in Morocco. And that shouldn’t be a big surprise, actually, because Arabs appeared in Sicily and as people are wont to do, the Sicilians adopted the making of those honey-drenched bits of dough.
Classic Italian cookbook author Ada Boni included Pellegrino Artusi’s recipe in her book, Italian Regional Cooking (reprinted 1994), and calls them “Lover’s Knots,” a more fitting (and romantic) name for a food from the land of Romeo and Juliet.
1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour, sifted
2 T. butter, at room temperature
4 t. granulated sugar
Pinch of salt (large pinch, more salt helps to flavor the cenci)
Grated rind of ½ lemon
2 ½ T. dry white wine or grappa
Confectioner’s sugar for dusting
Put the flour in a pile on a wooden board and make a well. Mix in the butter, sugar, eggs, salt, lemon rind, and wine. Stir all together carefully with a fork, tipping flour from the edges over into the center of the well. This makes a VERY stiff dough, so if it is too stiff, toss in a little more wine (by this time, you might just as well pour yourself a little bit of wine, too!). Knead the dough for about 5 minutes or until it is smooth. Wrap in plastic wrap and let sit for an hour.
On a lightly floured board, roll out dough until you can literally see through it. Using a ravioli cutter with fluted edges, cut strips about 6 – 7 inches long, as wide as your thumb. Tie into single-knot bows, as for hair ribbons.
Heat oil in a Fry Daddy or pan until 375 F. Fry a few cenci quickly until golden brown and puffed. Drain on paper towels, and sprinkle heavily with the confectioner’s sugar.
Serve with sweet Marsala or grappa.
© 2022 C. Bertelsen