The feast of Saint Joseph is celebrated on March 19 throughout Italy and the feast wouldn’t be complete without zeppole de San Giuseppe, sometimes called sfinge or bigné. Italy also celebrates Father’s Day on March 19 as well as Saint Joseph, spouse of the blessed Virgin Mary.
The zeppole are round to symbolize the family and are made with the same dough that’s used for cream puffs. They can be fried or baked and are topped with either pastry cream, or in some cases, a sweetened ricotta mixture. In the region of Puglia, a dollop of chocolate crowns the zeppole, as in the photo above.
But in many other areas, including Naples, they’re decorated with a sour amarena cherry that’s been soaked in a sugar syrup.
For many years, I’ve been wanting to make these zeppole to honor the Giuseppe in my own family — my brother Joe, whose birthday just happens to be the day following the saint’s onomastic. This year I finally succeeded.
I learned even more about the traditions surrounding the day after stopping by D’Angelo’s Italian Market, a shop in Princeton, N.J.
The owner, Anna D’Angela, originally from Sicily, where Saint Joseph is the patron saint, said that the “tavolata di San Giuseppe,” or St. Joseph’s table, is an overflowing table of foods that is always prepared for the day in her home town near Palermo. It all began following a severe drought in the Middle Ages, when Sicilians prayed to St. Joseph for water from the heavens to grow their crops. After their prayers were answered with rain, each year they honor the saint with the tavolata, preparing “tutto quello che esiste” (everything that exists), including every type of fruit and vegetable and fish. Fava beans, the one crop that kept the population from starvation during the drought, is always part of the feast. To this day, many Italians pray to St. Joseph to ask for divine intervention for loved ones who are ill, and promise to prepare “La Tavolata” as a sign of thanks. A priest will bless the food and some towns have a communal table, where everyone is invited to share in the bounty.
photo courtesy of D’Angelo Italian Market, Princeton
Anna explained that aside from the zeppole and sfinge, pasta con sarde (sardines) is another traditional dish for the day in Sicily. D’Angelo’s will carry some of these specialties for the holiday, but its shelves and counters are chock-full every day, with many wonderful Italian groceries and freshly made in-house treats. If you live anywhere in the central New Jersey area, do yourself a favor and stop by her shop on Spring Street for a myriad of other specialty items that are hard to find elsewhere.
But not everyone lives near Princeton, N.J., or even an Italian pastry shop. So courtesy of Kathy of Food Lover’s Odyssey, here’s a recipe to make your own zeppole di San Giuseppe. Kathy’s recipe calls for frying the dough, and I have to admit that after trying a half dozen times, I failed and ended up with greasy orbs that were uncooked in the center. Having made cream puffs in the past, I knew this dough would bake up nicely in the oven. So I shifted gears and preheated the oven to 425 degrees.
Twenty minutes later, this is what I got.
They’re a bit tricky and time-consuming to make, but if you prepare the pastry cream the night before, it doesn’t take that long. They’re best eaten right after you fill them, but they’ll keep in the fridge for a few hours too — if they last that long.
Notes: This made more than 12 zeppole for me, (more like 16) but I think mine were smaller than Kathy’s of Food Lover’s Odyssey. I also had a lot of pastry cream and chocolate ganache left over — not a bad thing in my book. I started out frying the zeppole, but couldn’t get it right and they were too greasy, so I switched to baking them – in a 425 degree preheated oven for about 20-25 minutes. That worked much better.
For the dough (choux paste):
1 ½ cups (350 ml) water
6 tablespoons (80 grams) butter, cubed
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
½ teaspoon salt
1 1/3 (180 grams) cup all-purpose flour
6 to 8 cups of peanut oil for frying
For the pastry cream:
3 ¼ cups (750 ml) whole milk
Rind of one lemon (only the rind, not the pith)
8 egg yolks
2/3 cup (160 grams) granulated sugar
Scan 1/2 cup (50 grams) cornstarch
3 1/2 tablespoons (25 grams) all purpose flour
4 tablespoons (55 grams) butter, cubed
For the chocolate ganache:
4 1/2 ounces (150 grams) dark couveture chocolate, finely chopped
2/3 cup (150 ml) heavy cream
To make the choux paste:
In a saucepan, bring the water, butter, sugar and salt to a rolling
boil. (It’s important that the butter is in small cubes, so it melts and
combines with the water before the mixture comes to a boil.) Add the
flour all at once, and remove from the heat. Stir until all the flour
is combined. Place back the mixture back on the stove and stir over
medium heat for about 5 minutes to dry out the mixture. Remove from the
heat and, after allowing the mixture to cool for 10 minutes, add the
eggs one at a time. Stir in each egg completely before adding the next.
a deep pot, heat the oil to 360° F (180° C). Place the choux paste
into a piping bag attached with a 14mm star tip (the tip opening should
be about 1/2 inch in diameter). Cut 4X4-inch squares of parchment
paper. Pipe the choux paste onto the parchment paper, making rings that
are little smaller than the paper, 3 1/2 inches in diameter. (I
actually piped little “snails” filling the center, but it wasn’t
necessary as the dough rises quite a bit as it fries, leaving only a
small hole in the center.) Place the choux paste and parchment paper
into the oil. Once the dough starts frying, the paper will fall away
easily; then remove it from the pan. Fry the zeppole about 4 minutes on
each side. Depending on the pan size, fry only 2 or 3 zeppole at a
time, so you don’t lower the temperature of the oil. Once the zeppole
are cooked through, place on paper towels to drain. Sprinkle with
powdered sugar once they’ve cooled slightly.
To make the pastry cream: Place the milk and the lemon rind in a nonreactive heavy bottom sauce pot and leave for 20 minutes. Then bring the milk to a scald. Let the lemon rind steep in the milk for 10 minutes. In the meantime, in another bowl, whisk together the sugar and egg yolks until the mixture becomes pale. (The whisk must be nonreactive also.) Add the cornstarch and flour and whisk to combine.
Strain the lemon rind out of the milk, and slowly pour the warmed milk into the egg yolk mixture. Whisking together as you pour. Once all the milk and egg yolk mixtures are combined, place back into the saucepot and over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, whisking vigorously the entire time. Once the mixture has boiled, cook for another 2 minutes, again stirring the entiring time. Remove from the heat and strain through a fine-mesh seive. Add the butter to the top of the pastry cream, stirring in once the butter has melted. Place the bowl into an ice bath and let cool for 10 minutes. Spread the pastry cream into a 9×13-inch glass dish and cover with plastic wrap. The plastic wrap should be touching the pastry cream to keep the cream from developing a film. Refrigerate until cold.
To make the chocolate ganache: Place the chopped chocolate in a bowl. In a sauce pot, heat the cream just until it’s scalding (little bubbles appear around the rim). Pour the cream over the chocolate. Let the mixture rest for a minute, then slowly whisk together. To create a smooth ganache, place the whisk in the center of the mixture and whisk in a small, slow, circular motion until the chocolate and cream combine. Let the ganache cool and thicken just to the point that it will hold its form when it’s piped.
To assemble the zeppole: Place the pastry cream into a piping bag fitted with a 12mm star tip. Into the center of each zeppole, pipe the pastry cream. I piped a generous two “snail-shaped” circles of pastry cream, one on top of the other. Place the ganache into a piping bag fitted with a 10mm star tip. Pipe a small ring of ganache on the top center of each zeppole. They are best minutes after they’ve been garnished, and should be eaten the day they’ve been made. Enjoy!
NOTE: To make the Neapolitan version, with a cherry topping instead of the chocolate one, you need a jar of amarena cherries, or another type of sour cherries, in syrup. Drain some of the syrup from the cherries, and top each zeppole with one cherry.