Written by Danielle Oteri
March 19 is the Feast of Saint Joseph. Revered for being dutiful, hardworking and dedicated to his family, Saint Joseph is also the patron saint of Sicily.
There’s not a whole lot known about St. Joseph—he’s sort of the strong silent type in the New Testament. But one of the few places where his cult is widely celebrated is Italy, where today is also Father’s Day.
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 that’s squeezed through a pastry tube into a circle, fried in oil, then filled with sweet ricotta cream cheese before getting a generous dusting of confectioners sugar and a cherry on top.
I can only describe them as a cannoli cream sandwich. In Rome they call them bigne and in Naples they are sfingi.
Sometimes you’ll see them served plain with only a dusting of sugar, like an Italian beignet, or filled with vanilla cream or custard like a profiterole.
Call ’em what you want and eat ’em how 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 zeppole (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.
While many excellent bakery versions take the time to pipe the batter and ricotta filling, you can always do these the rustic way by spooning into rounds to bake or fry. The zeppole will be less photogenic, but no less tasty.
If you’d like to try your hand at frying your zeppole, watch the Good. Food. Stories. tutorial on deep frying to make these the traditional way on the stovetop.
Or if deep frying isn’t your thing, you can also oven-bake them for a similar finish, like a gougere pastry.
Here’s my own version of zeppole by way of Sicily.
- 3 cups ricotta cheese
- 1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 2 tablespoons grated orange zest
- 2 tablespoons grated lemon zest
- 1 cup water
- 8 tablespoons (1 stick; 4 ounces) unsalted butter
- 1 cup (125 grams; 4 1/2 ounces) all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon grated orange zest
- 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
- 4 large eggs, at room temperature
- 2 quarts vegetable oil for frying
- 1 jar maraschino cherries, drained
Make the ricotta filling:
- Beat the ricotta, sugar, vanilla, and orange and lemon zest with an electric mixer or stand mixer on medium-low speed for 5 minutes.
- Chill in the fridge until ready to use.
Make the dough:
- Heat the water and butter in a medium (1-2 quart) saucepan over medium heat until the butter melts and the liquid comes to a boil.
- While the liquid heats, whisk the flour, sugar, and salt together in a small bowl.
- Remove the boiling liquid from the heat and add the flour. Stir to combine, then return to the stove and reduce the heat to medium low.
- Stir for 1 minute more, as the dough pulls away from the sides of the pan to form a smooth ball.
- Transfer the dough to the bowl of a stand mixer and let rest for 5 minutes.
- Add the orange and lemon zest.
- With the paddle attachment, stir the dough on low speed for 2 minutes to cool it slightly. Steam will rise up from the dough while stirring, which is completely normal.
- Add the eggs one at a time: the batter will separate and clump with the addition of each egg, but let the mixer do its work and it will become smooth and glossy once more as the egg is incorporated.
- Scrape down the bowl after each egg has been mixed in.
- If you are piping your dough, scrape the batter into a large pastry bag fitted with an open star tip. (Editor's note: I used size 8B for the zeppole in the photos.)
To bake your zeppole:
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone liners.
- Pipe 2-inch rings or drop generous tablespoonfuls of batter onto the baking sheet, leaving about 1 1/2 inches between each.
- Bake for 30 minutes, until the pastries are puffed and golden brown. Crack the oven door and bake for 5 minutes more.
- Remove from the oven and quickly but carefully slice each ring or puff in half horizontally and let them cool on a rack.
- Once cool, pipe or spoon ricotta filling onto one half of each zeppola.
- Top with the other half of the ring or puff, then pipe or spoon another small mound of filling into the center of each ring.
- Top with a cherry.
To fry your zeppole:
- Fill a medium heavy-bottomed pot such as a Dutch oven with oil to a depth of at least 3 inches, and line a rimmed baking sheet with a paper towel and an upside-down cooling rack.
- Heat to 350 degrees F. (For complete instructions on stovetop deep frying, check out the Good. Food. Stories. tutorial with video.)
- Carefully pipe circles of batter or use a spoon to drop generous tablespoonfuls into the hot oil, being careful not to crowd the pot.
- Fry until the zeppole are golden brown, then transfer them to the prepared baking sheet to cool slightly.
- When cool enough to handle, slice in half.
- Once completely cool, fill and garnish with ricotta and a cherry as noted above.
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