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Zeppole di San Giuseppe

  • March 16, 2013

 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.

Zeppole di San Giuseppe
From Food Lover’s Odyssey

printable recipe here

Zeppole di San Giuseppe
(makes about 12)

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
5 eggs
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.

Italian Rum Cake

  • December 6, 2012

 When I was younger and there was a special occasion — a wedding, a christening, a bocce banquet (yes, I went to one of those and sat next to “Lefty”) — there was always a multi-layered Italian rum cake. As a kid, it didn’t appeal to me, but as an adult, I think it’s got to be one of my favorite desserts. All the essential ingredients are there — a tender cake to bite into, chocolate and vanilla pastry cream, sweet ricotta with chocolate bits, whipped cream. All that and booze too. If you’re over the legal drinking age, what’s not to love? Oh sure, you can make it without the alcohol for the younger set, but it won’t be the same without the rum (not to mention the Sambuca that I add too.) Have it your way, but do try it. It’s easier than you think. 

You start out with a basic sponge cake. I made mine in a springform pan and sliced it in half. Insert some toothpicks all around, then cut with a serrated knife, using the toothpicks as a guide.
Once you’ve cut it in half, cut it in half again so that you have four layers.
In between one of the layers, smear some of the chocolate pastry cream. Whoops, before you do that, sprinkle a good amount of rum over the bare cake.
On the next layer, drizzle more rum (or Sambuca as I did), then smear on the vanilla pastry cream.
The final layer also gets doused with rum (don’t be stingy), then topped with a layer of ricotta that’s been mixed with sugar and chocolate bits.  A special shout-out to Anna, owner of D’Angelo Italian Market in Princeton. She knew I was making this cake and came down from Brooklyn with a fresh batch of ricotta just for me. If you live anywhere near Princeton, check out the store. It’s a great place to grab a bite to eat in the center of town, and you’ll find lots of hard-to-find Italian groceries and specialty products, including a panettone with amarena cherries that I can’t wait to try.
Here’s how it looks when the layers are in place with the filling. Now how to frost this?
Easy. Just whip up some cream and spread it along the sides and top. Add some toasted almonds or walnuts to the side of the cake. Use a piping bag to make some decorations if you want. You can probably guess this cake was for my friend Pietro, who celebrated a birthday recently.
With the holidays approaching, this cake would be a perfect special dessert. You can even bake the cake ahead of time and store it in the freezer, wrapped in foil, until you’re ready for the fillings. But don’t count on putting any leftovers in the freezer once it’s assembled. I guarantee there won’t be any.

Italian Rum Cake
printable recipe here

for the basic sponge cake:
6 extra large eggs, room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
1 tsp. grated orange or lemon zest
1 t. vanilla
1 1/2 cups cake flour, sifted

Beat the eggs in a mixer until pale yellow, about five minutes or so. Add the sugar and zest a bit at a time and beat until the mixture is thickened enough to fall off the spoon in thick ribbons. This will take about 10 to 15 minutes. Mix in the vanilla, then fold in the flour carefully, making sure not to leave any clumps of flour in the dough. Pour into a 9 or 10-inch springform pan that’s been buttered and floured. I like to put a piece of parchment paper that’s been greased and floured at the bottom of the pan also. Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 25 to 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Let the cake cool completely, then release from the pan and slice into four layers.

For the pastry cream:
4 T. sugar
4 large egg yolks
5 T. flour
2 2/3 cups milk
1 t. vanilla
2 ounces semi-sweet or unsweetened baking chocolate, grated

1 cup whipping cream (optional)

Place the sugar, egg yolks and flour in a pan and stir with a wooden spoon until the mixture is smooth and light yellow and all the sugar is dissolved. Heat the milk in another saucepan until it is scalding hot. Slowly pour the hot milk over the eggs, stirring constantly over heat. Keep stirring and cook until the mixture becomes really thick. Take half of the cream and put it into another pan and put the chocolate into this half. Mix until it’s incorporated. With the pastry cream in the first pan, remove from the heat and add the vanilla. Put a piece of plastic wrap on the surface of both the vanilla and the chocolate pastry cream to prevent a skin from forming.

If I’m feeling particularly indulgent, I’ll whip up some cream and fold that into the pastry cream. For the cake in the photo, I didn’t do it this time (but I wish I had).
Don’t tell anybody, but I have also been known to use a boxed pudding mix and add whipped cream to that.

Ricotta filling
2 cups fresh ricotta (try to find this at an Italian specialty store, but in a pinch use the commercial stuff you find at the supermarket.
1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar
2 ounces semi-sweet chocolate cut in small bits

Drain the ricotta overnight. I do this by lining a colander with a large coffee filter. You can use cheesecloth, or even paper towels. I dump the ricotta into the coffee filter, cover it with a plate large enough to cover, but small enough so I can press down on the ricotta. Then put a heavy can on top of the plate. Put the whole thing in the refrigerator overnight, placing a bowl under the colander to catch the liquid.
The next day, with a wooden spoon, mix the ricotta with the sugar and the chocolate bits.

other ingredients needed:
a couple of tablespoons for each layer:
rum (I use the darker, golden rum)
Sambuca (or other liqueur you might prefer)

2 cups whipping cream
1/4 cup confectioner’s sugar
Whip the cream with the sugar until firm, but don’t over beat or you’ll end up with butter.

1/2 cup toasted sliced almonds

You can place the fillings in any order you like – chocolate on top, bottom or middle, ricotta on top or whatever moves you.

Place one layer of cake on a cake stand. Sprinkle with a couple of tablespoons of rum (or more). Spread the ricotta cream over the cake. Place another layer of cake over the ricotta, douse with Sambuca or rum or any other liqueur you prefer. Spread with the vanilla pastry cream. Place the third layer of cake over the vanilla pastry cream and sprinkle with more rum or other liqueur. Spread the chocolate pastry cream over that.
Cover with the final layer of cake and spread the whipped cream over the top and sides.

Using your fingers, press the almonds into the side. If desired, pipe some whipped cream rosettes over the top.