Merveilles, the marvellous Swiss carnival sweet11:36 AM
Wonders oh wonder!
This sweet treat is iconic in Switzerland and originates in Basel, which is the host to the most famous Carnival in the country, Carnival you can learn about here.
The original name of the pastry is in German : Fasnachtschuechli, in the other linguistic regions of Switzerland we had to get creative and find a name for it. Because unless you understand or speak German the original name can be a mouthful.
The Italian speakers refer to it as "Fritelle di Carnavale" which more or less translates as "Carnival fries".
The French speakers borrowed the name of a carnival pastry from France to describe the Basel treat: Merveilles, which translates as wonders in English.
To avoid the cross border confusion, the French usually call our Wonders "Merveilles Suisses" (Swiss Wonders), and the French speaking lot in Switzerland often refer to the French carnival treat as "Beignet de carnaval" which roughly translates as "Carnival doughnut"
Both variants are made of fried dough but that is were the similarity stops. The French "beignet" is thicker, a bit chewy depending the variant and in some variations looks like mini a doughnut hole.
The Basel pastry is a thin and crispy disk that bubbles during the cooking process. Perfectly made merveilles usually have a pretty wave that makes them look like a twirling skirt. The waves are apparently created by pushing the dough in the oil with a wooden spoon, but even without the wave, they taste delicious.
What is sure is that while the sweet treat originated in Basel, it pretty much has become a national Winter tea-time treat and the two biggest supermarket chains in the country each have their in-house brand where it comes packaged in packs of 6 in a cardboard pack covered in colourful wrapper featuring confetti and silly strings.
It is also sold in pretty much every bakeries during the months of January and February. This is the only time of the year you will see them sold anywhere. They disappear from the shelves in March.
As a kid, I used to look forward to that time of the year. The ones we bought were the supermarket kind, I never saw anybody in my family making these fresh. None of my friends had parents making them either. Why would one make them when they are pretty much available everywhere around you? It is pretty much like Jalebis in India, sure it's easy and you can make them home, but seriously why go through the hassle?
Like a lot of other food stuff, I started craving them in India, where you won't find them (and no, no desi equivalent fried pastry will never replace them).
This had me go on a wild Google hunt, that first lead to the French pastry, and a little detective work lead me to know how the French call them and adjust my keyword search.
This is how I pretty much figured out the dough is a very eggy dough that has a little butter and little sugar in it. Not that I didn't suspect that already, the eggyness is what makes them taste some awesome.
In the end, this is how I make my dough:
- 5 eggs
- 500g white flour (maida in India)
- 60g melted butter
- 60g Icing sugar + a lot extra for dusting
- 1 pinch of salt (unless you are using salted butter, if so, no need to add salt)
How to do it:
1) Mix the icing sugar, eggs, melted butter and salt in a big bowl.
2) Add the flour and knead to a smooth dough and let it rest in the fridge for at least 2 hours.
3) Heat enough oil in a pan to deep fry your merveilles.
4) Take a golf ball portion of dough and roll it down on a floured surface as thin as you can, ideally it should almost be see-through.
5) Immediately throw the thin disk of dough in the hot oil and using the handle of a wooden spoon, gently push it down in the oil. At this point if you are familiar with the Indian "puri" this is pretty similar as cooking technique goes.
The dough will bubble and rise to the surface quickly, flip it a couple of time so that both sides cook evenly. They are done when they have a beautiful golden colour.
6) Take it out of the oil and drain on a plate covered with kitchen tissue and proceed to the next merveilles.
7) Once they are all cooled down, dust them with icing sugar using a tea-strainer. Eat right away.
A few important things to know:
- It's better to make a few of them at a time and keep the dough in the fridge in an airtight box. The raw dough will keep a couple of days that way.
- Merveilles are better enjoyed right after cooking, cool but not stale. In Mumbai the humidity can make them soggy pretty quickly, even if you store them adequately in a plastic or cookie tin lined with tissue paper.
- The oil in which you fry the merveilles should NEVER be smoking hot. It should be lightly bubbling, the raw dough first sinks at the bottom of the pan and rise to the top as it crisps, they should take close to a minute to turn golden on both side, if your oil is too hot, it will brown them too quickly and they will be chewy inside.
- They are best enjoyed at tea-time with friends and family. You simply place a few of them pilled up on a plate and help yourselves of bits and bites by breaking them from the main pastry.
If you are familiar with Indian papads, that is how we eat merveilles. Never try lifting the whole thing to your mouth, you'll end up blowing the sugar dusting everywhere, including you hair.
- Like Christmas cookies, keep it a special treat during the Winter months, you can technically cook them year round (though in Mumbai the humidity can make it challenging) and they will taste that much more special being a highly anticipated treat.