Today is the Feast of Saint Joseph. There’s not a whole lot known about St. Joseph (he’s sort of the strong silent type in the New Testament), and one of the few places where his cult is widely celebrated is Italy where today is also Father’s Day. Revered for being dutiful, hardworking and dedicated to his family, Saint Joseph is also the patron saint of Sicily.
Even though the feast of St. Joseph usually falls in the middle of Lent, the Sicilians, not known for restraining from pleasure, pay him homage with light-as-air fried cream puffs called zeppole. That fried dough you’ve had at street fairs and carnivals is the poor man’s version of this good stuff.
The Sicilian version is a fluffy batter squeezed through a pastry tube into a circle, fried in oil and then stuffed with a sweet ricotta cheese cream and topped with a cherry. I can only describe them as a cannoli cream sandwich. In Rome they call them bigne and in Naples they are sfingi.
Call ‘em what you want, but you have to do them right because like so many Italian-American pastries there are a lot of bad versions out there. If you take the time to make these right (or get yourself to the North End in Boston or Arthur Avenue in the Bronx), you will surely agree with me that these pastries are nothing short of heavenly. Here’s my own version, by way of Sicily…
makes about 20 pastries
First, the ricotta filling:
- 3 cups ricotta cheese
- 1 1/4 cups sugar
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 2 tablespoons grated orange peel
- 2 tablespoons grated lemon peel
Mix all ingredients together with an electric mixer or stand mixer for 10 minutes. Chill in the fridge until ready to use.
Then, the pastry…
- 1 cup hot water
- 1/2 cup butter
- 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 4 large eggs
- 1 teaspoon grated orange peel
- 1 teaspoon grated lemon peel
- vegetable oil for frying
- 1 can maraschino cherries, drained
- Confectioner’s sugar for dusting
Bring water, butter, sugar, and salt to boil in a medium saucepan. Add the flour and beat for about 3-4 minutes until the dough leaves the sides of the pan and forms a smooth ball. Remove from heat.
Quickly stir in the eggs one at a time, mixing vigorously after the addition of each until the batter is smooth and glossy again (it will separate initially when each egg is first dropped in). Stir in the orange and lemon peel.
Heat 3 inches of oil in a large, wide pot. (It’s ready when the batter sizzles. Test it with a little drop.) Using a wooden spoon, drop rounds of batter into the hot oil, being careful not to crowd the pot. Once the zeppole are golden brown, use a slotted spoon to transfer them to a paper towel-lined plate to cool. When cooled, cut a slit in each puff and fill with the ricotta and top with a maraschino cherry. Sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar.
You can also bake your zeppole. Preheat your oven to 350˚. The zeppole will bake quickly, between 5-10 minutes. Remove when they are just lightly browned.