Carnevale Colored Sweets

alkermesI bought my first bottle of alkermes in Florence at Santa Maria Novella Farmacia on Via della Scala 16 down the street from the Santa Maria Novella train station. A fragrant universe filled with terra-cotta jars and gilded urns that was already well-known in Dante’s time. It was established in the 13th century by the Dominican friars of Florence who began to cultivate and prepare medicinal plants and herbs used in the treatment of the sick. Many of the products available for purchase today are based on the ancient recipes of the friars.

The ancient recipe of alkermes has a colorful history. Originally formulated by a 9th century Persian physician in the court of the caliph of Bagdad as a medicinal elixir for the  elite, the incensual ingredients used in the Persian recipe read like a formula for an exotic perfume; aloes, ambergris, apple juice, cinnamon, gold leaf, honey, musk, powdered lapis lazuli, crushed pearls, raw silk, and rosewater. Kermes, a type of small insect found on Mediterranean oak trees, provided an intoxicating scarlet color.

The scarlet elixir of Arabic origin made its way to the formulary of the monks of Santa Maria Novella. Cochineal, another insect based powdered red colorant, replaced the exotic kermes in the Renaissance recipe refined by infusing neutral spirits with herbs and spices such as garofano (clove oil), orange, cinnamon, vanilla, nutmeg and coriander.

carnevaleFavored by Caterina de’ Medici, alkermes became an essential ingredient in many Italian pastries including zuppa inglese and traditional Carnevale sweets like castagnole, sweet fritters rolled in sugar & drizzled with alkermes.

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What Happens in Venice Stays in Venice?

You might think I’m talking about the pursuits of the masqued Venetian party-goers of Carnevale but what I’m referring to is indulging my uncontrollable desire for Venetian pastries. Frittellezaletti (Venetian cornmeal diamonds) tiramisu and decadent tortas, where does it end? If you happen to be in Venice, never; Venice a city where sugar seems to be in the air. The seemingly endless Venetian pastry shops (pasticcerria) that line the narrow streets and spill out into each campo from the Dorsoduro to San Polo tempt you with all manner of confectionary delights.

Who can resist pallone di casanova (Casanova’s Balls) or not be intrigued by lingue di suocera (“mother-in-law’s tongues”)? Or the classic pastries of Café Florian with a romantic view of St. Mark’s Cathedral and canals that have enchanted visitors for generations. Although Baci in Gondola (kisses in a gondola), speckled white meringues bound together by a stripe of dark chocolate are appealing, my favorite Venetian sweets

pan di gogi best are the Doge’s Cookies (Pan dei Doge). Being partial to Doges in general (see my blog on Descended from the Doge) these cookies are amazingly good. I am enamored of the pistachio version and if that weren’t enough to tempt my latent sweet tooth there is the exotic and elegant Torta del Doge, a small buttery cake filled with raisins topped with pine nuts and flavored with rum and I haven’t even mentioned the zabaglione  cream puffs.