Cucina Conversations: Frittura dolce (deep-fried semolina squares)

Semolina. In English, the coarsely-ground meal resembling polenta milled from triticum durum or durum wheat. In Italian supermarkets, often comes in convenient 250 gram-sized packets for making soups, gnocchi, puddings and Italian babies’ first primi. Semolino. In Italian, another word for the pappa or resulting mush Italian mamme make for their weaning bambini with the aforementioned coarse yellow grains.

This month’s Cucina Conversations topic is ‘comfort food’. After coming across what appears to be the first usage of this term at this link here, I couldn’t help but think of an ingredient Italians often associate with eating in their infanzia or childhood. Don’t worry though, I won’t be spoonfeeding you a sloppy pappetta. Instead, I thought of sharing one of my favourite semolina-based preparations from Piedmont, frittura dolce or deep-fried semolina squares.

I still remember the Sunday lunch I discovered these lemon-infused delights many years ago. Anna, my now-mother-in-law, served us her version of the fritto misto (literally, ‘mixed fry-up’), a dish consisting of meat and offal coated in various ways (such as a batter or covered in breadcrumbs) and fried. Alongside that assortment of fried meat were some unexpectedly sweet neighbours in the form of amaretti biscuits, frittelle di mele (apple fritters) and these crisp, citrusy squares. Though skeptical about the sweet-savoury combination, I tried a piece of sausage alongside one of the crumb-encrusted pieces of semolina. Needless to say, that momentary doubt about this Piedmontese delicacy disappeared very quickly.

You don’t have to go to the trouble of frying meat, let alone sweetbreads and brains to make these subtly sweet morsels though. Anna, like many other Piedmontese homecooks, sometimes makes a batch to be served as an antipasto. In fact, some Piedmontese recipe books (Nonna Genia, for example) give this preparation its own entry in the antipasti section under the name of frittura dolce, meaning ‘sweet fry-up’. Beware though. Like many comfort foods, these squares are filling. And, at any four-course Piedmontese meal, restraint is necessary when eating antipasti. Just to give you an idea of the importance of this course in the region, Anna often serves three to four, in addition to the primo, secondo and dolce she insists on making come Sunday lunchtime. Limit yourself to assaggini (literally, ‘little tastes’), as you’ll still want room to appreciate the food to come…

Ingredients (serves 4 as an antipasto)
Recipe adapted from Nonna Genia by Beppe Lodi

  • 500 mL milk
  • 20 g sugar
  • Zest of 1 organic unwaxed lemon, finely grated
  • 1 pinch of salt
  • 125 g semolina
  • 2 eggs, yolks and whites separated
  • 200-300 g breadcrumbs, for coating set semolina squares
  • Vegetable oil, for deep-frying

Bring milk, sugar, and grated lemon zest to boil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Lower heat to a gentler simmer. In a slow and steady stream, add the semolina, ensuring that you whisk constantly to avoid forming lumps. Switch to a wooden spoon and continue to stir the thickening porridge constantly. Remove from heat once the mixture forms a dough-like mass and begins to pull away from the sides of your saucepan (about 10 minutes). Leave to cool for a couple of minutes. Add the egg yolks, one at a time, and whisk until thoroughly incorporated. Turn semolina mixture into a lightly-greased baking dish or work surface. Use a wet spatula or hands to flatten semolina mixture so it is about 1 centimetre thick. Leave to cool completely (about to two to three hours).

Use a lightly-greased knife or cooking string to cut the set semolina into squares. Put two bowls on your work surface and add the egg whites to the first one and the breadcrumbs to the second one. Dip and coat each semolina square in the bowl with the egg whites, followed by the bowl with the breadcrumbs, ensuring that their surfaces are evenly coated.

Heat enough vegetable oil in a saucepan for deep-frying until the temperature is 170 degrees. Fry four semolina squares at a time for 1 and a half minutes or until evenly crisp and golden brown. Remove squares with a slotted spoon onto a plate covered with absorbent paper towels. Serve hot as an antipasto.

Still in need of comfort? Then visit the sites of my fellow bloggers to see their recipes for this month:

Carmen is making scacce con mulinciane, savoury bread dough pies with an eggplant filling from Sicily’s southeast.

Daniela is making one of my favourite dishes, gnocchi al sugo di pomodoro.

Flavia is taking comfort in making polenta, the perfect way to warm up in winter.

Francesca is making a dish from the Roman canon of primi, tonnarelli cacio e pepe.

Lisa is making another one of my favourite dishes, pasta e fagioli.

Marialuisa talks about a very relatable subject, cooking when you don’t feel like cooking but have to to feed your family. Pasta brodaccia, a filling, no-fuss dinner is her solution.

Finally, pardon the self-promotion, but here’s a link to another comforting, (savoury) semolina-based dish I wrote about for Italy Magazine last week, gnocchi alla romana. You’ll find they are prepared in a similar way.


Falling in Love with Franciacorta

We knew we wanted to go away, switch off and relax for a few days after the New Year. The ideal location would be Italian, filled with good food and wine, but not too far…


A pignatta for Christmas and some lentils to inaugurate 2017

I got lots of lovely presents this Christmas. There was the gorgeous waxed canvas handbag with leather trimming that doubles as a camera bag from TP. Friends, colleagues and students gave me some handmade cards…


Cucina Conversations: Croccante di mandorle, the perfect edible gift for an Italian Christmas

No matter what I do, Christmas always seems to arrive too quickly. And this year is no exception. At least this time, however, I can say I anticipated the onslaught of additional tasks and deadlines…


Cucina conversations: too many recipes for bagna cauda

I came close to throwing in the towel with this one. I was going to contact my fellow Cucina Conversations bloggers and say, I’m sorry but I won’t be joining you with an olive oil-related…


Cucina Conversations: castagnaccio for Ognissanti

That time of year is upon us again. It’s the season Giacomo Castelvetro, Inquisition refugee and author of the 1614 manuscript The Fruit, Herbs and Vegetables of Italy, described as per la bocca (‘for tasting’)….


Cucina Conversations: Italian cuisine, a new blogging roundtable and Sicilian grape must pudding

I had quite the epiphany a couple of years ago when I first read John Dickie’s highly readable account of Italian food and culinary history, Delizia. In the book’s second chapter, after describing Palermo’s totemic…


Amatriciana for Amatrice: a recipe and how to support the earthquake relief efforts

The almost eerie perfection of the Baroque reconstruction in Sicily’s Val di Noto. The twelfth century church three metres below street level in the same island’s port city of Messina. The ghost town of Romagnano…


Snapshots from a Summer Holiday: Siena, Bolsena, Orvieto and Pitigliano

In Italy, the month of August means three things: intense, unrelenting heat; putting chiuso per ferie (‘closed for holidays’) signs on the doors of shops and small businesses because it’s impossible to work; and, escaping to a…