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Italy is a country proud of its culinary traditions that vary greatly from region to region. Unlike the US, Canada, and the UK, Father’s Day in Italy is celebrated on March 19th, Saint Joseph’s Day. In central and southern Italy, especially in the Campania and Puglia regions, the traditional dessert is a scrumptious fried pastry filled with cream known as zeppole di San Giuseppe. So let’s learn about how this custom started and also how to make them!
The Origin of Zeppole
Like so many recipes, the exact origin of the zeppole di San Giuseppe is up for debate. The consensus is that they most likely originated in Naples in the late 1800s. The earliest recorded recipe was written in the Neapolitan dialect by Ippolito Cavalcanti, Duke of Buonvicino, in 1837. Many believe that the dessert predates Cavalcanti’s recipe by hundreds of years.
The legend linked to Christian tradition tells that Joseph, in addition to being a carpenter, began cooking and selling the fried delicacies to make ends meet when the Holy Family was fleeing to Egypt. You could think of it as a mobile food truck in ancient times.
Yet another theory traces the zeppola back to Roman times when they would celebrate Liberalia, dedicated to the gods of grain and wine (Bacco and Sileno). To accompany their wine, they would eat little dumplings made from wheat flour and fried in lard.
There is even debate about the origin of the word zeppola itself. Some believe that it came from serpula, Latin for “serpent”, which would explain the dessert’s coiled shape; and others claim that the original word was cippus later evolving to zeppa, or “wooden wedge” in reference to Joseph being a carpenter.
The truth is, we’ll probably never know the exact origin, but anyway you slice it (or in this case, fry it), zeppole di San Giuseppe are here to stay and will be making fathers everywhere happy for many generations to come.
Recipe for Zeppole di San Giuseppe
For 6 pastries
250g of water (1 cup)
150g of flour 1 1/4 c.)
100g of butter (1/2 c.)
4 small eggs
pinch of salt
250g milk (1 cup)
70g granulated sugar (1/3 c.)
60g egg yolk (approx. 3 yolks)
25g cornstarch (3 1/4 TBSP)
zest from 2 lemons
1 tsp of gelatin powder (or 1 sheet)
1 vanilla bean pod (or 1 tsp. of vanilla extract)
4 Amarena cherries*
powdered sugar for dusting
Making the Dough
Begin by bringing the water and butter to a boil in a non-stick Dutch oven. Add the previously sifted flour and stir constantly with a wooden spoon until the mixture starts to detach from the sides of the pot. Transfer it to a bowl and allow it to cool. Next, whisk in the eggs one at a time until you have a well-incorporated mixture that you can transfer into a pastry bag with the star-shaped nozzle.
Squeeze out the zeppole onto a baking sheet previously lined with parchment paper. You will make two complete turns leaving a hole in the center of about 2 cm. The diameter of the donut should be about 8 cm. Leave enough space between them so that you can cut each one out of the parchment paper into individual squares.
Fry the donuts in peanut oil at 170°C, by placing each one into the oil upside down on its parchment paper square. After about 1 minute, remove the paper with tongs and flip the zeppole over so that they are right-side up. They only need 1 minute on each side. Drain them onto paper towels.
Making the Pastry Cream
Soak the gelatin in cold water if using the gelatin sheet, otherwise, mix the gelatin powder according to directions.
Heat the milk in a saucepan with the vanilla bean that you opened lengthwise and the two lemon zests. Slowly bring it almost to a boil, at about 90 °C allowing for the vanilla and lemon zest flavors to seep in.
Meanwhile, beat the egg yolks with the sugar and cornstarch in a bowl until the mixture is frothy and smooth.
Slowly pour the hot milk, through a fine sieve (to filter the zest and vanilla bean) over the yolks, mixing constantly.
Return the mixture to the heat and cook over low heat, stirring, for 2-3 minutes until the cream thickens.
Add the gelatin and dissolve it into the cream mixture and then pour it into a bowl and let it cool covered with plastic wrap.
Once the cream has cooled, transfer it to a pastry bag with a slightly smaller star-shaped nozzle and fill the center of the zeppole using a slightly smaller starry nozzle. If you are a whiz in the kitchen, make small holes around the edges of the zeppola and insert the nozzle to fill them with additional cream filling.
Finally, place an Amarena cherry in the center and sprinkle with powdered sugar.
*Amarena cherries are sold by the Fabbri company, but if you cannot find them, you can make your own sour cherries in sweet syrup to substitute. Please note: they are NOT the same as Maraschino cherries.
Buon appetito e Buona Festa del Papà!