by gina depalma

March 1st falls on Ash Wednesday this year, which in an overwhelmingly Catholic country such as Italy, is a day that is observed by most of the native population. Lent continues for a period of 40 days until Easter, and is preceded by months of Carnevale celebrations, some of which begin just after Christmas in some Italian communities. Viareggio in Tuscany, Ivrea in Piemonte, Cento in Emilia-Romagna, and of course, the jewel city of Venice all have notably elaborate Carnival celebrations, including festive costumes, parades and processions with floats, as well as the continuation of traditional rituals that have been faithfully observed for centuries. Food plays an important role in the general atmosphere of overindulgence during Carnevale, including all sorts of tasty doughnuts and fritters that are fried in huge open kettles, often right in the main piazza, during the festive local celebrations that are held from Sicily to Piemonte.


After a reaching wild crescendo on Martedi Grasso, or Fat Tuesday, the indulgence comes to an abrupt halt when Ash Wednesday dawns and the traditions of the Lenten season are solemnly ushered in. The notion of fasting for Lent does not necessarily mean abstaining from all foods, but over-the-top indulgent sweets are noticeably absent from the table. Italians are more likely to enjoy simple, austere desserts, such as poached or baked fruits, roasted nuts and cheese to conclude their Lenten meals.


Another Lenten tradition is to eat something crunchy and hard, “sferrare un pugno,” to pack a punch, so to speak. In Umbria and Tuscany, pasticcerie, or pastry shops, feature the cookies known as quaresimali, baked in traditional alphabet shapes, along with some form of a Lenten Cake that is made without eggs, as a form of abstinence. I hardly call the cake below abstaining, since it full of flavor from the walnuts, spices and citrus zest used to enliven it. Just make sure to summon a bit of that deprived feeling when you eat it.


Serves 8-10




Preheat the oven to 325°F.


Place the raisins and orange juice into a small saucepan and put over medium heat to bring the orange juice to a boil. Remove the pot from the heat and allow the raisins and juice to cool.


Place the flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda, nutmeg and cinnamon in a medium bowl and whisk them to combine the ingredients thoroughly.


In the bowl of an electric mixer, use the paddle attachment on medium speed to beat the sugar and olive oil together until smooth and light, about 2 minutes. Add the honey, lemon juice and grated zests.


Add the dry ingredients and beat on low speed for about 30 seconds, then increase to medium speed and continue beating until the batter is smooth. Add the orange juice and raisin mixture to the batter and beat for another 30 seconds. Fold in the walnuts.


Pour the batter into a greased, 9-inch round cake pan, and bake the cake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until it is golden brown and springs back lightly when touched.


Allow the cake to cool in the pan, then remove it to a cooling rack to cool completely. To serve, dust with confectioner’s sugar.