Carrot Salad with Chickpeas, Pistachios, Tahini

I'm not sure if there's such a thing as the sister-in-law jackpot, but if there is, I'm pretty sure we've won it. My sister-in-law Lakshmi --who officially joined our family two years ago -- is many things, all of them wonderful. She is a talented cook, introducing us Italo-Americans to Indian dishes like chicken biryani and coconut rice and lemon rice, to name just a few. She is an uber intelligent lawyer, a speaker of the musical and complex Tamil language, a fan of British high tea, a wearer of intensely bright colors (black/white/gray need not apply) and my brother's perfect match. She is generous, funny, wise, and, on top of all this, is also a superb gift-giver, with a knack for selecting the most thoughtful and perfect birthday/Christmas/anniversary (etc) gift for the friend or family member in question. Past highlights include, but are not limited to: a basket of super foods for my enthusiastically health-conscious aunt; a surprise food tour around New Orleans for my brother, who loves nothing more than a good meal; earrings from India for me and my sister, which, magically, go with any outfit.
My admiration for food blogger and cookbook author Deb Perelman is no secret -- I've mentioned her in many a post and have made more of her recipes than I can count (this genius farro, these clever shortcakes, this life-changing sticky toffee pudding, among many others). Her blog Smitten Kitchen was the first food blog I ever started following all the way back in 2007, when I was still in high school. A decade later, when food blogs are now plentiful, Smitten Kitchen still distinguishes itself as the best food blog around. Deb's writing is clever, descriptive, at times laugh-out-loud funny; her recipes are spot-on, delicious, exactly the sort of food you want to run to your kitchen and make; the photos are simple, understated, and lovely. Deb's first cookbook (published in 2012) quickly became my culinary bible, so you can imagine how excited I was to learn that she had written another one set to be released at the end of 2017, called "Smitten Kitchen Every Day." (!!!)

So where am I going with all this? This year for Christmas, the Best Sister-in-Law in the world gave me the newest cookbook from the Best Food Blogger on the scene, and wait, there's more! It was signed by Deb Perelman herself. Yes, you read that correctly -- my sister-in-law, the gift whisperer, didn't just get me The Cookbook of the Year, the one I had been dying to get a copy of here in Rome, she had also had gotten Deb Perelman, Her Royal Blogging Highness, to sign it. I was so surprised, moved, and excited that I may have shed a tear or two when I opened it, and it is, without a doubt, one of the best and most touching gifts I've ever received. The cookbook is 300+ pages long, and, unsurprisingly, I want to make every.single.recipe

After a recent food-blogging-bender of chocolate cake, fritters, and funfetti cookies I found myself gravitating towards the lighter recipes in the newest SK cookbook, opting for this Carrot Salad with Roasted Chickpeas, Pistachios, and Tahini. I know what you're thinking, but never fear! This isn't your usual heap-of-lettuce kind of salad (Deb would never do that to you!) but a salad that is 150% crave-able, a mix of different textures and flavors and colors that play off each other, symphony-like. The carrots here are miles away from the usual clunky carrot sticks of your childhood lunchbox, instead refined and elegant and crisp, their sweetness balanced nicely by the very lemon-y and lightly sesame-tinged dressing. The chickpeas, with a little roasting, are transformed, becoming toasty and crisp, an excellent match for the equally crunchy, earthy pistachios, the whole dish woken up with a sprinkling of bright refreshing parsley. Make this salad, and then make everything else Deb Perelman has ever written about, and if you're feeling a little jealous that you don't have a sister-in-law like mine, I understand -- (I'd be jealous of me too).
(To anyone who knows me as solely Francesca, Ches is my nickname among my immediate family, and childhood friends, who very rarely call me by my full name). 
A couple of notes: Peeling and grating the carrots is a bit of work but well worth it; buying pre-grated carrots isn't quite the same, as they're dryer and thicker than the ones you grate yourself. Use the largest grate on your cheese grater for the grating. I can't find ground cumin here in Rome, so I substituted garam masala and cut down a bit on the salt (garam masala is on the saltier side) and it worked wonderfully. This salad is best the first day as the chickpeas and pistachios otherwise lose their crunch; if you're not sure you will eat the whole salad in one sitting, be sure to keep the pistachios and chickpeas you might have the next day apart and add them to the salad leftovers upon serving. 

Looking for other salad recipes? I've got this Greek Panzanella, this Burrata with Prosciutto and Nectarines, this Insalata di Tonno e Fagioli, this Fennel, Orange, and Olive Salad, and this salad with Figs and Mozzarella di bufala. Looking for other recipes with chickpeas? I've got this homemade hummus, this Pasta e ceci, and this Chickpea, Sausage, and Kale Soup.

CARROT SALAD WITH CHICKPEAS, PISTACHIOS, TAHINI
(recipe from Deb Perelman)


Ingredients for the chickpeas: 
1 3/4 cups cooked chickpeas, or 1 15-ounce can, drained and patted
dry on paper towels
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

Ingredients for the salad:
1 pound (450 grams) carrots, peeled and coarsely grated
1/4 cup (a good handful) coarsely chopped parsley
1/4 cup shelled, salted pistachios, coarsely chopped

Ingredients for the dressing:
1 medium garlic clove, minced

1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) lemon juice
3 tablespoons well-stirred tahini
2 tablespoons water, plus more if needed
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and red pepper flakes to taste

Directions:
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Toss the chickpeas with one tablespoon olive oil, salt, and cumin until they're all coated. Spread them on a baking sheet and roast them in the oven, tossing them occasionally, until they're browned and crisp. This will take about 20 minutes. Set the chickpeas aside until needed. 
Whisk all the dressing ingredients together until smooth, adding more water if needed to thin the dressing slightly. Taste and adjust the seasoning; don't worry if it tastes a little sharp and overly lemony, it will be perfect with the grated carrots.
 
Place the grated carrots in a large bowl and toss with the parsley. Mix in 2/3 of the dressing, and season with salt and pepper if desired. Sprinkle the salad with a large of handful chickpeas and pistachios and dig in. Serves 2 generously or makes 4 smaller portions.

 









Risotto al finocchio e limone

When I first started learning to cook and bake all the way back in middle school, I found risotto -- much like Isabel S. and Amanda M., the reigning popular girls of my 8th grade class -- a bit intimidating (though in hindsight if it was only a few spoiled pre-teens and arborio rice scaring me, I wasn't doing so badly)My 13 year old self did lots of culinary self-teaching and cookbook reading back then, and from what I had gathered, risotto -- not unlike algebra -- was notoriously tricky. It required lots of continuous stirring, and if you didn't stir it as you should, your risotto would end up a gluey, stuck-to-the-pan mess; broth needed to be added in specific quantities, and added only when the previous ladle-ful had been absorbed, and not a moment sooner; and if you got that far, the risotto needed to be eaten immediately, or else (I wasn't sure what the else was). For a while, I stuck to what I had already learned to do well -- brownie pie, banana pancakes, any type of pasta -- which, similar to sitting in the last row during Math class, seemed a bit safer. 

As time went on, I grew more confident in my kitchen skills, and although I felt painfully out of place in gym class and overly self-conscious at lunchtime, I learned to be pretty cool in my own kitchen at least, conquering things like Baked Alaska and Cheesecake and homemade gnocchi. I eventually decided to give risotto a shot, and, to my great surprise -- pause for dramatic effect --  found it wasn't so difficult as I had expected it to be, not in the least. Sure, it required a bit of stirring and attention, but it was nothing I couldn't handle, and when it was all said and done, the rice's transformation from crunchy little grains to velvety risotto was kind of magical, up there with the rising of bread dough or the disappearing act of sauteed greens, one of those things that to this day makes cooking and baking so fascinating to me. Around the time I conquered risotto, I came to the conclusion that the Popular Girls were also harboring insecurities (so that's what made them so mean!) most everyone in the class were sporting braces, not just me, and anyways, high school was right around the corner. Moral of the story: both middle school and my risotto were both eventually overcome, conquered, brought down to size. Who knew grades 7-8 and risotto had so much in common?!

But you came here for recipes, not reminiscing -- on to today's recipe. You don't find much risotto here in Rome; it's a dish that is more common up in the north of Italy, especially in Milan, the home of risotto alla milanese (risotto with saffron). It's something then that I make for myself at home, most usually on Sunday afternoons, or after a long day at my less than dream-job, where lots of repetitive, methodical stirring does the mind good. This fennel risotto with lemon is one of my new favorites, one of those make-eat-and-repeat dishes. It's buttery and rich and creamy and comforting (butter + Parmesan cheese have this down pat) the richness of the finished dish tempered by the bright sunny hit of lemon, and the fennel! The fennel here is sauteed in said butter, then left to almost braise in wine and broth along with the rice, where it becomes sweet, almost caramelized, its telltale licorice flavor present but softened around the edges. Topped with a few extra fennel fronds, a dash more of cheese, and a grate or two of lemon zest, it's heavenly. Conquer any lingering risotto fears you might have and make this, asap, I mean it.

A couple of notes: This is another spot-on Rachel Roddy recipe from the Guardian. I found that the rice took a bit longer to cook than the 16 minutes Rachel mentions in her reicpe and also that I did not to use all 2 liters of broth -- see how things go for you. I used arborio rice here instead of the recommended carnaroli, which worked wonderfully. Risotto is most certainly best eaten right off the stove, and I've read more than once that it shouldn't be reheated or eaten the next day (if anything, any leftovers should be used to make suppli'). However, I found this reheated pretty well the next day -- I heated up a little broth in the pan, stirred in the risotto and let it absorb the broth and heat up again, and it was good as new. The next day, the fennel flavor is stronger, which was also delicious. Last thing: I doubled the lemon zest, because I like an extra hit of citrus, but I leave the choice up to you.

Looking for more rice recipes? I've got this Butternut Squash Risotto and this Risotto with Peas and Pancetta, these Rice-stuffed Tomatoes with Potatoes, and this Insalata di Riso. Looking for more recipes with fennel? I've got this salad with Fennel, Orange, and Olives. Looking for more Italian comfort food? I've got this Butternut Squash Lasagne, this Pici pasta with sausage ragu', these Canederli, this Polpettone, and this Polenta con funghi

RISOTTO AL FINOCCHIO E LIMONE
(Fennel and lemon risotto - recipe from Rachel Roddy)

Ingredients:
1 large fennel bulb
2 litres (2000 grams) vegetable or light chicken stock
5 tablespoons (75 grams) cold unsalted butter
1 small yellow onion
1 1/2 cups (320 grams) carnaroli, arborio, or vialone nano rice
1/2 cup (125ml) dry white wine
Zest of a lemon
1/2 cup (60 grams) freshly grated Parmesan cheese


Extra cheese and lemon zest, for serving

Directions:
Start by preparing your fennel. Cut off the fennel fronds (the feathery greens at the end of the stalks) and set aside for garnish. Using a sharp knife, cut off the tough bottom stem, the stalks of the fennel and any of the tough outer layer. Slice the resulting trimmed fennel bulb in to thinnish slices. Peel and finely chop the onion. Melt half the butter in a large deep frying pan/saucepan over medium heat, and sauté the chopped onion and the fennel with a pinch of salt, or until soft and translucent.
Add the rice to the fennel and onion mixture, stirring for 2-3 minutes, to toast the grains and coat them with the butter. Add the wine to the pan and stir until it has been absorbed. As the rice is absorbing the wine, place your stock in a medium pan on another burner on the stove and bring it to a simmer over low heat. When the wine is absorbed, begin to add the stock to the rice a ladleful at a time, stirring constantly and allowing it to be absorbed before adding the next. Rachel says this process will take about 16 minutes, but I found it took a little longer. Taste the rice: it is cooked when it is tender, but still with bite.
Turn off the heat on the pan, and add the rest of the butter, the cheese and the lemon zest. Cover the pan. Let it sit for 1 minute, then beat the risotto vigorously with a wooden spoon until the risotto is creamy and glossy. 
Taste the risotto and add a little salt, if you think it needs it. Divide the fennel up between 4 plates, decorating with fennel fronds, some extra Parmesan, and a little lemon zest if you wish. Servse 4.





































Wellesley Fudge Cake

So: I have officially been 29 years old now for 3 weeks. My birthday (which, of course, I share with my twin sister) was on January 27th, and we celebrated by going to the famed Babington's Tea Room for high tea, followed later by an aperitivo at our new favorite restaurant, Secondo Tradizione, followed still by an evening at the ballet (more than one person asked us if we were turning 29 or 79 -- we know, we know, it was a relaxed sort of birthday, and we wouldn't have had it any other way)! 

My birthday has always been a highly anticipated day for me, with lots of good food and cake and friends and well-wishes, because after all, you're celebrating the day you arrived on the planet, which is a pretty big deal. I've done quite well in the birthday department in my 20s -- we rang in 21 in London, one of my favorite cities, welcomed 23 with a party in Bologna, and turned 28 in Rome with a homemade cake and a birthday brunch, to name just a few. My recent 29th birthday, however, felt different than my previous birthdays, celebratory but also a tiny bit melancholic, and I've realized I don't particularly like the idea of being in the last year of my 20s. After all, this is the decade in which I studied abroad, really learned Italian, graduated college, moved to Rome, fell in love, experienced a broken heart, translated a book, opened a blog, met some of my dearest friends, and learned more or less how to be an adult (emphasis on the more or less) in the world. It's been a good and important 10 years, and I'm not sure how I feel about leaving them behind. Being thisclose to 30, to entering a new phase, has left me feeling a little wobbly, and I'm finding myself taking stock of things and considering what changes I might want to make, what I might want to tackle next (first up: a job I'm happier in, ideally one related to food and writing). I wonder what the last year in my 20s will look like, and what my 30s will be like, what I'll eventually do, and where I'll go, which is exciting but also overwhelming and a little scary at the same time. Its been a reflective, pensive couple of weeks for me following my birthday, and lately I've been feeling a little out of sorts. 

In the midst of all this uncertainty however, cooking and baking, as always, is a constant, and from my kitchen recently, another source of comfort: chocolate cake. Think about it: whatever ups and downs you may encounter, however unsure or unsteady you're feeling, you can be sure that by mixing together flour, sugar, butter, eggs, and cocoa in the prescribed quantities, and baking the resulting mixture for a set amount of time (give or take a few minutes) you will end up with a chocolate cake. Chocolate cake, I realized, is a sure thing, the cure to whatever may be ailing you, reassuring, a guarantee even when nothing else is, always a good thing. I may not have a very clear idea of what this next year will hold, nor where I'll be as I enter my 30s, but I celebrated my slightly shaky birthday with a slice of steady, unwavering, chocolate cake. Which, by the way, was an exceptional chocolate cake.

The chocolate cake in question comes from the cookbook American Cake, written by the lovely and talented Anne Byrn (you may remember her from this post here). This is Wellesley Fudge Cake, a cake that was first baked at the Wellesley Inn on Wellesley Square in Massachusetts, not far from my home state of Rhode Island. It is a quintessential New England cake, the "fudge" frosting an ode to the fudge that college girls at Wellesley college would famously whip up in their dorm rooms back in the day, with a little butter, chocolate, and a borrowed Bunsen burner. The cake is light and fluffy yet deeply chocolate-y, dressed up with one of the best frostings I've ever eaten, EVER, thick and truffle-y and glossy and downright addictive, just barely sweet. I topped the whole thing off with a snowfall of sprinkles, which are optional, but make the finished cake so festive and pretty they might as well be mandatory. Birthday or not, ups and downs or not: no matter where you are in life at the moment, you owe it to yourself to make this cake.

A couple of notes: The recipe as Anne wrote it uses buttermilk; buttermilk is one of those ingredients I've never been able to find in Italy, so I substituted plain full fat yogurt (not Greek, the thinner kind) whisked together with a tablespoon or two of milk, and it worked perfectly.  If you'd like a two layer cake, make the cake as described below, using either two 8-inch rectangular cake pans, or two 8-inch round cake pans. Or, do as I did -- as you can see in the photos -- and halve the recipe for both the cake and the frosting to make a one-layer cake, baked in a rectangular 9x13 inch pan. Frost the cake right when the frosting has come together -- it hardens as it cools and makes for difficult frosting. Finally, I loved this cake as is but also would be tempted to add a nice dose of mini chocolate chips to the cake next time, to up the chocolate-factor even further.


WELLESLEY FUDGE CAKE

Ingredients for the cake:
4 ounces (112 grams) unsweetened chocolate, chopped
1/2 cup (120mL) water
2 cups (200 grams) granulated sugar, divided use
2 cups (260 grams) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks, 168 grams) unsalted butter, softened
2 large eggs
1 cup buttermilk (240mL), at room temperature (see notes above)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Ingredients for the frosting:
1/2 cup (1 stick, 125 grams) unsalted butter
4 heaping tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1/3 cup (80 mL) whole milk
3 1/2 cups (435 grams) powdered sugar, sifted
1 teaspoon vanilla extract  

Rainbow sprinkles for decorating (optional) 

Directions:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsius). Lightly butter and flour the bottom of two 8 inch square baking pans, or if you're making just one layer cake like I did, grease just one pan. Shake out the excess flour, and set the pans aside. 
Place the flour, baking soda, an salt in a medium sized bowl, and stir to combine well. Set aside. Place the chocolate and water in a small saucepan over low heat. Stir and heat until the chocolate is nearly melted, about 1 minutes. Take the pan off the heat, stir in 1/2 cup (50 grams) sugar, and set the chocolate aside to cool.
 
Place the butter and the remaining 1 1/2 cups (150 grams) sugar in a large bowl, and beat with an electric mixture until the mixture is fluffy, 1-2 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, then add the chocolate mixture to the batter, and blend on low for 15-20 seconds. 
 
Add the flour mixture alternately with the buttermilk, beginning and ending with the flour mixture, and blending on low until just combined. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula, and stir in the vanilla. Divide the batter between the prepared pans, smoothing the tops, and place the pans in the oven.
 
Bake the cakes until the tops spring back when lightly pressed with a finger, about 25-30 minutes. The cakes should just begin to pull away from the sides of the pans. Remove the cakes from the oven, and place on a wire rack to cool for 1 minutes. Run a knife around the edges of the cakes and give them a gentle shake. Invert the cakes once and then again to cool on the racks, right side up. Let cool completely, 30-35 minutes.

While the cake is cooling, make your frosting! Place the butter in a medium-size saucepan over low heat. When the butter melts, stir in the cocoa and milk. Let the mixture come just to a boil, stirring, and then remove the pan from the heat. Stir in the powdered sugar and vanilla until the frosting is thickened and smooth.
 
When the cake layers are cooled, and when the frosting is smooth and still a little warm, place 1 layer on a cake plate or platter and spoon a generous 3/4 cup frosting over the top, smoothing it to let it cover the layer and let it trickle down the sides. Place the second layer on top (if you have decided to make both layers) and ladle more frosting over the top, smoothing everything out. For a casual look, let the frosting drip down the sides of the cake. Decorate with rainbow sprinkles if using.
For a more finished look, run the frosting around the edges of the cake using a metal spatula, just to seal in the crumbs. Repeat spreading the frosting around the edges of the cake. Let the cake rest for 1 hour before slicing and serving.  Serves 8-12.  
 














Zeppole sarde (zippulas)

It's Monday -- everyone's least favorite day of the week, mine included -- but if it makes you feel any better, it's already time for the February round of Cucina Conversations! (Feeling a little better? Thought so.) This month's theme is Carnevale (Carnival) the period leading up to martedi' grasso (Fat Tuesday) which is then followed by Ash Wednesday and then Lent. Since Fat Tuesday falls early this year -- tomorrow, February 13th -- my fellow bloggers and I are sharing our recipes mid-month.

Lent is a 40 day period of fasting and more modest eating (ex: no meat on Fridays) and in anticipation of this, the traditional dishes eaten in Italy pre-Lent are pretty indulgent, as everyone gets their fill of the foods they will soon theoretically be without. You'll find recipes like lasagne alla napoletana from Naples, or lasagna taken over the top with the addition of sausage and hard-boiled eggs; fagioli grassi from the Piedmont region, or beans cooked with pork; or migliaccio, again from Naples, or polenta baked with pork and lots of cheese. Desserts to celebrate Carnevale in Italy are fried, because really, if you're going to be skipping dessert for 40 days, you might as well go all out and deep-fry the end to your meal, no? Italy's repertoire of fried Carnevale sweets is incredibly vast, with dolci that vary from region to region; there is schiacciata alla fiorentina from Tuscany, arancini dolci from Le Marche, krapfen up north in the Alto-Adige region, as well as chiacchiere (which also go by the names frappe, crostoli, or bugie, depending on where you are in Italy) and castagnole, plus countless more. Phew! Still with me?

Never one to shy away from a little sugar, I opted for a dolce this month, more specifically zeppole sarde (zeppole from Sardinia) which also go by the name zippulas in Sardinian dialect. There are many different variations on zeppole in Italy; the zeppola eaten in Naples around Carnevale is shaped like a doughnut, and rolled in sugar; zeppole pugliesi are made with rice and fried; different still are the zeppole eaten on St Joseph's day on March 19th, which are baked and filled with pastry cream; there are also savory zeppole, which go by the name pasta cresciuta. The zeppole that come from Sardinia are my favorite, though; much like the island itself, they are extra special, made with orange zest, potato, and saffron, a seemingly odd array of ingredients that come together to make a truly fantastic sweet.

This recipe comes from one of my culinary idols, Gina DePalma (the mind behind this magnificent ricotta pound cake, these addictive taralli, and this spectacular honey pinenut tart) and, as I've come to expect from any DePalma creation, were oh-so-perfect. These zeppole were deep golden brown and crisp on the outside, delightfully fluffy and cloud-like on the inside, extra fragrant, redolent of orange with a hint of earthy saffron, pure bliss when eaten warm and rolled in a flurry of sugar. The saffron gives the zippulas a flavor that is a bit more complex and nuanced than that of your typical dolce carnevalesco, making them a bit more elegant and refined, exactly what you would expect from an ingredient as precious as saffron. Swooooon.

With no further ado, here are the recipes from my fellow bloggers:

Marialuisa over at Marmellata di Cipolle has made ciambelle al profumo di arancia, or sugar dusted, orange scented doughnuts; 

Rosemarie over at Turin Mamma has prepared chiacchiere ripiene, another fried sweet; 

Daniela of La Dani Gourmet has shared her recipe for risotto di seppie e bieta, or risotto with cuttlefish and chard;


Carmen at The Heirloom Chronicles has decided to go savory in the midst of all our fried desserts, and prepare parmigiana di zucchine;

Flavia from Flavia's Flavors is sharing her recipe for frappe, another popular dolce carnavalesco.


Last but not least, Lisa from Italian Kiwi will be making strauben, from the Alto-Adige region of Italy.

A couple of notes: You can find some helpful tips on frying towards the end of this post here. If you don't have any grappa laying around, you could substitute brandy or even cognac, or substitute 2 or so tablespoons milk if you want to leave it out all together (I have done this before with good results). The recipe as written recommends 1 teaspoon of saffron, which makes for a very saffron-y zeppola -- I reduced the quantity to 1/4 of a teaspoon while testing this and was happier with the more subtle saffron flavor, but I leave the choice to you. Gina suggests frying these in olive oil, but I used peanut oil because it is what I had around, with good results. Feel free to roll the zeppole in powdered sugar instead of granulated sugar if you prefer. Finally, note that these, like all things fried, are best eaten as soon as possible and do not keep well.

ZEPPOLE SARDE (ZIPPULAS)
(Potato and saffron doughnuts from Sardinia)

Ingredients:
1 large baking potato
2 oranges
1 cup (240 mL) whole milk
1/4 teaspoon saffron threads (see notes above)
3 teaspoons (7 grams) active dry yeast
4 cups (520 grams) all-purpose flour (Farina 0 if you're in Italy)
2 teaspoons salt
1 large egg
3/4 cup (150 grams) sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup (60 mL) grappa (see notes)

6 cups olive oil or any other frying oil, for frying
Sugar for rolling 

Directions:
Boil the potato in salted water until it is tender when pierced with a knife. Drains the water and allow the potato to cool slightly, then peel off the skin. While the potato is still warm, pass it through a potato ricer and spread the riced potato out on to a place to cool completely.
In the meantime, zest the oranges and squeeze the juice into a small bowl, straining out any seeds, until you have 1/2 cup juice. Scald the milk in a small saucepan over medium heat and add the saffron threads. Remove the pan from the heat and allow the saffron to infuse and color the milk, whisking occasionally, until the milk has cooked to lukewarm, or 105 degrees Fahrenheit if you have a cooking thermometer around. 
 
Strain the milk to remove any bits of saffron if you don't want them in your zeppole (otherwise, feel free to leave them) and whisk the yeast in to the milk mixture to dissolve it and allow the mixture to proof (i.e: get bubbly) for about 5 minutes. 
Place the flour in a large bowl and combine it with the salt. Add the potato to the bowl. In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg with the sugar, orange juice, orange zest, and grappa, then add this mixture to the flour and potato, along with the warm milk and yeast mixture. Work the ingredients together with a fork, then by hand, forming a ball of dough. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface and knead it, adding more flour if necessary, until the dough is smooth and elastic, about 2 minutes.
Place the dough in a greased bowl, turn it once to coat it, and cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a damp towel. Place the bowl in a warm place to rise until the dough has doubled in bulk, about two hours.
In a heavy bottomed stockpot, heat the oil to 360 degrees Fahrenheit or 180 degrees Celsius -- it is best to use a thermometer when frying, as oil that is too cold will result in a soggy, greasy result, and oil that is too hot will cook whatever you're frying on the outside but not on the inside. Using your fingers, break off 1-inch pieces of dough, and roll them in to balls with your palms. If you'd like, you can also do as I do an break off a larger piece of dough and form it in to a doughnut shape -- roll the dough in to a ball, pinch the middle of the dough ball with your thumb and pointer finger, and then stretch the dough to make a whole in the middle. Fry the zeppole in batches, 3 or 4 at a time, until they are golden brown and crisp, turning them with a slotted spoon until they are deep brown on both sides, about 3-4 minutes.
Drain the doughnuts on paper towels, let them cool slightly, then dust them with confectioner's sugar or granulated sugar (your choice) and serve warm. Makes 25-30 zippulas