Shaking up Venetian Baking
At this time of year, the lagoon is skeined with geese, mirrored between lagoon and sky until their ancient invisible signal sends them streaming out over the Adriatic. Something similarly mysterious happens with doughnuts. We can’t work out how or why- is it the almanac, the moon, a secret telegram from the mayor?- but all the bakers in Venice seem to know when the official day comes to bake fritelle, the warty brown lumps of heaven we rave about annually. And, without being told, ineluctably as geese, the Venetians know too. It’s actually a bit spooky- suddenly half the city is queuing outside Rizzardini and Rosa Salva for the very best traditional baked good the city has to offer. And, to be honest, the only truly exceptional one.
Venice doesn’t have much of a history with bread and cakes. For evident practical reasons, polenta and rice were the staple carbohydrates of the Venetian diet. The brioche now enjoyed at breakfast are an Austrian tradition and the “pane del Doge” was invented in the nineteenth century for tourists. But Vittoria Cossa of Lievito Madre is out to revolutionise Venetian baking. In just a year a business which began as a lockdown project has become one of the coolest in the city, supplying sourdough breads, brownies, doughnuts and desserts, made to order and personally delivered.
Vittoria at work in her Castello kitchen
Vittoria grew up in Sydney, where her parents ran restaurants, and moved to Venice in 2013. “Baking was always a huge part of my life, but I never thought of trying it as a business until I lost my job in the first lockdown. I read an article about sourdough and thought I’d have a go.” Despite getting up at a truly appalling hour, Vittoria now barely has time to fulfil her commissions, “ At first my customers were the international residents, people from France, Germany, the US who were looking for bread they couldn’t find here. But then more and more Venetians started ordering. Sourdough is a new thing but aside from the taste- and the fact that it makes great cichetti- Venetians were also curious about the health benefits.” Vittoria uses leftover mother yeast in her sweet goods too “You really notice the taste, the acidity complements the sugar and it gives a buttery texture without using too much fat.” Lievito Madre’s puddings have become a bit of a cult and Vittoria now works on events for several of the city’s smartest hotels as well as art venues like Ocean Space.
Vittoria is convinced that Venice itself has helped the business in a unique way “Word of mouth is everything here. People know each other- you trust your greengrocer and your fishmonger, so when people recommended the bread I had them turning up on my doorstep asking about it. I deliver all my orders myself, so I know all my customers. Although the product is novel, it’s a very Venetian way of working.”
The next plan is to become the first woman proprietor of a stall in Rialto (yes, the first), but despite the huge success Lievito Madre has achieved in its first year, Vittoria has no plans for an empire “ I want to build a meaningful business that adds to everyday life in Venice. Fritelle are really great, but why not a jam doughnut? Or a cardamom bun…”
If you’re staying in Venice you can order a delivery from Lievito Madre here.
Orange and Ricotta Fritelle
When it comes to fried desserts like this, we immediately rule out the possibility that it could be easy to make and actually quite light. Whilst I have never attempted traditional jam doughnuts (but highly recommend those of Vittoria) I had tried several different types of beignet and fritelle, my first being an African recipe and my last being a Venetian fritelle (first attempt didn’t go so well). It took me a surprisingly long time to discover the pleasures of ricotta fritelle.
I was given a version of these at a friend’s house after a cold walk as she had been testing a recipe and had some of the batter still in the fridge,(this seems like a scene from a Nigella Lawson episode but it's true). they are never dry or heavy and are not overly sweet.
60gr goats cheese, any type of smooth
160gr plain flour
1 orange zest grated
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
50 gr granulated sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp Ground cardamon (optional)
Orange and cardamon glaze
1 orange peeled
5 cardamon pods
Start by preparing the candied orange and cardamon syrup. Heat the water and sugar together until dissolved, then add the orange let simmer for 2 minutes and then turn off the heat at which point add the cardamom pods. Put to one side.
In a large bowl add the ricotta and goats cheese, eggs and mix together until well combined. Then add the milk, orange peel. At this point you also have the option to add the candied orange peel you made at the beginning. In which case you can remove it from the syrup (saving this to one side) and finely dice it, if you would prefer to save it till the end that is also fine.
In another bowl mix all the dry ingredients together, flour, sugar, salt, cardamon (if using) and baking powder. When its well blended add this all to the wet ingredients and mix well. Add more flour if it's too runny but it should be the consistency of thick pancake batter. Let this sit in the fridge for 10.
Bring the oil to the heat of 180c in a heavy-based pan. Try out the first one and if it turns golden brown in 2-3 minutes it's at the right temperature. Fry the batter in tablespoon-sized balls. Small batches work best.
Have a plate with kitchen paper ready. Once they are all done drizzle with the reheated orange and cardamon glaze and a sprinkle of icing sugar.
Tip: Keep the frying oil at a constant temperature by not adding too many beignets at one time
Store Cupboard Strudel
The tradition of preserving fruits in alcohol for the winter is still going strong in Venice, providing charming gift jars of gleaming peaches which then glare at you in dusty resentment for a the next year. This is a great way to use up guilt-inducing bottled fruit- peaches, plums or cherries, but you can also use canned fruit in syrup.
(Serves six generously)
600g bottled or tinned fruit
1 pack ready made filo pastry
few drops vanilla essence
1 heaped tablespoon cinnamon
1 star anise
tablespoon brandy or cognac (if the fruit does not already contain alcohol)
icing sugar for dusting
Heat the oven to 200. Roughly chop the fruit (unless you’re using cherries in which case leave them whole). Put in a saucepan with the vanilla, cinnamon, star anise and brandy if using and heat to a simmer, then leave to cool. Meanwhile, melt the butter and lay out a sheet of baking paper on the tray on which you will bake the strudel. Brush the paper with butter, then lay down one sheet of filo, butter again and repeat with 8 layers of pastry. Crumble the walnuts and add to the fruit mixture, removing the star anise. Spoon the fruit along one side of the buttered pastry, leaving a gap about 1 inch at either end, then roll up the strudel and fold the ends inwards to make a neat parcel. Roll the strudel over so that the seam side is down and brush all over with butter. Bake in the oven for ten minutes, then reduce the heat to 180 and bake for a further 10 to 15 minutes until the pastry is golden and crispy. Allow to stand for ten minutes then sift icing sugar over. Serve hot or cold - delicious with plain pouring cream or vanilla ice.