Buon Onomastico, Happy Name Day, a common augurio if you happen to bear the name of a celebrated saint, and if that name is Giuseppe, it is one of the most recognized and exalted in Italy. Not only those named Joseph are honoured, but all fathers as well, as 19th of March is observed as the Festa del Papà, Father’s Day in Italy. There are many ways to commemorate the occasion, the greatest of which, enjoying a heavenly treat known as a zeppola or St. Joseph's Day cake.
The delightful golden wreaths, also known as sfinge, crispelli, or bigné di S. Giuseppe, are typically light-weight, deep fried rings, usually topped with powdered sugar and may be filled with custard, jelly, pastry cream or a butter and honey mixture. Depending on the region in which they are produced, their consistency ranges from light and puffy, to bread or pasta-like. Their popularity has extended beyond their regions of origin, Rome, Naples and Sicily to a following in many Italian communities abroad.
The tradition of zeppole dates back to 500 AC and the Latin celebration of Baccanali on 17th of March where ancient Romans honoured the gods of wine (Bacchus) and wheat (Silinus) were by consuming copious amount of wine and wheat-flour fritters.
Somewhere along the course of history, the celebration of the divinities crossed over with the patronage of St. Joseph on the 19th of March and was bestowed with a zeppola. A derivative of the Baccanali fried dough, the modern-day zeppola is said to have been created in the 19th century by a convent of monks and perfected by Neopolitan baker Pasquale Pintauro. The well-known pastry chef had the tremendously successful idea of frying rings of choux pastry, piping them with pastry cream, dusting them in powdered sugar and crowning them with amarena cherries. The phenomenal aroma of this process was sent wafting through the city streets as Pintauro would churn them out from a friggitore (frying stall) on the sidewalk just outside his shop.
The pastries grew in popularity and soon became synonymous with the festival of the beloved saint. In Naples they are often referred to as zeppole del pasticcere (pastry chef) to distinguish them from savoury fritters also made during celebratory periods in southern Italy.
While it was a native of Napoli who made them famous, it is often argued that Sicilians were the original creators of the famed paste, that they refer to as sfinzi. Zeppole di San Giuseppe, a fried dough specialty made for the festival of St. Joseph from Enna, Sicily are loved throughout southern Italy. They are very much associated with the same festival in Naples. The origin of zeppole, or zippula in Sicilian, comes from the Arabic zalābiyya meaning fried soft dough. Even today, in Egypt, they are called zalābiyya.
The medieval Arab zalābiyya, a kind of deep-fried doughnut sprinkled with sugar, exists today, both with that name and many others, including sifanj. Sifanj, coming from the Arabic word for “sponge,” is a kind of very soft yeasted doughnut made in North Africa that is allowed to rise more than usual to make it airy, and is served with honey or sugar. This sifanj exists in Sicily, too, where it is called sfinci (or sfìncia) the word also derived from the Arabic. The thirteenth-century notary Adamo de Citella of Palermo tells us they were sold by a sfingiarius. This medieval doughnut was also described in the fourteenth-century Sicilian vocabulary of Angelo Senisio, who tells us that sfingia is a fried bread that the common people also call crispella. In Algeria, they may also be called khafaf, in Tunisia, yūyū.
During a period of severe drought in the Middle Ages, the people of Sicily prayed to St. Joseph for rain and in return promised him a great feast. When St. Joseph complied with their request, he got a feast named in his honour. Among the dishes laid out on St. Joseph's table were treats made of fried dough that were rolled in sugar or drizzled with honey. The addition of the creamy filling came later.
No matter their specific birthplace, they are a specialty enjoyed across the Italian peninsula and beyond on March 19 when pasticcerie and friggitorie produce them in astonishing quantity. The tradition of eating the sweet, delicate pasta bigné flavoured with cream and cherries is one that must be observed. Auguri di San Giuseppe and Buon Appetito!
We like the Zeppole di San Giuseppe recipe by Cooking with Nonna. Try it! Easy and delicious:
4 Cups - Milk
6 - Egg yolks
10 Tbs - Sugar
6 Tbs - Flour
Peel of 1 lemon
Peel of 1/2 orange
2 Cups - Flour
1 3/4 Cups - Water
4 Oz (113 gr) Salted butter
1/2 Cup - Sugar
Peel of 1 lemon
Wild cherries in syrup or Amarene
Custard Cream Preparation:
Mix the flour and sugar in a pot.
Add the milk and mix well.
Add the egg yolks and mix well.
Put the pot on the stove at low heath, add the lemon and orange peels and stir continuously in the same direction until the cream thickens.
Remove the lemon and orange peels and discard.
Put the cream aside and let it cool off.
In a high pan put the water and the butter.
Put the pan on the stove and melt the butter.
Add the lemon zest and mix well.
While still on the stove, slowly add the flour and let it absorb all the fluids until you obtain a firm ball. Continue mixing the dough on the stove for about 10 mins.
Remove from the stove and add the sugar. Mix well so that the sugar is incorporated into the dough.
Put the dough in a cool place and let it cool completely.
Once the dough is completely cooled off, put the dough in a stand mixer and one at the time add the eggs and let them be absorbed into the dough.
By this time the dough will be rather soft and you will be able to put it into a pastry bag.
Cut several squares of 4x4 of baking paper and on each one start from the centre and squeeze the dough from the pastry bag to form a bird's nest with a hollow space in the centre. You now have a zeppola.
While the zeppola is still on the paper put the zeppola into the hot frying oil. The paper will quickly separate from the zeppola and you will be able to remove it.
Turn the zeppole several times until they turn golden-brown on both sides.
Remove the zeppole from the oil, let all the oil drain and once the zeppole are cold, you are now ready to garnish them.
Put the cream in the pastry bag and fill the hollow centre of the zeppola with a bit of overflow on top.
Add either a wild cherry or an amarena on top and garnish with icing sugar.