A popular dessert in Naples and beyond, the zeppola di San Giuseppe, a deep-fried cream puff, is traditionally eaten on the Feast of St. Joseph (also called St. Joseph’s Day), on March 19, which is also when Father’s Day is celebrated in Italy.
On this day, each Neapolitan traditionally eats several zeppole, despite their enormous size and rich filling. I have seen some that, with the addition of cream puffs, cream (inside and out) and black cherries, weighed almost half a kilo.
To make a zeppola, cream puff dough is extruded from a sac à poche in the shape of a coiled snake (snake in Latin is serpula, which is where many believe the name zeppola came from) and then fried in vegetable oil. In reality, I must mention that baked zeppola has become increasingly widespread. For me, though, the baked zeppola doesn’t even exist; it is an invention of dieticians.
The first written zeppola recipe, in Ippolito Cavalcanti’s 1837 treatise on Neapolitan cuisine, provided for double frying, first in vegetable oil and then in lard. Now that’s a zeppola! None of this baked business.
The origin of the sweet zeppola is ancient: the Romans used to celebrate the Liberalia, the feasts of the gods who dispensed wine and wheat, each March. Romans drank heavily and fried fragrant wheat pancakes in the shape of a twisted snake.
The current incarnation of the Neapolitan zeppola di San Giuseppe was born in a convent, of course. The poor nuns of Santa Chiara prepared a fried dumpling that was flavored by an elixir of their invention.
The pastry chef Pasquale Pintauro, the same man who brought the sfogliatella to Naples, eventually came to possess this zeppola recipe in the early 19th century. But he had a problem – at that point, desserts in Naples were mostly associated with religious holidays. Struffoli at Christmas, pastiera at Easter, chiacchiere at Carnival. All the main holidays were taken. According to local lore, our Pasquale then read in the Scriptures that St. Joseph, the putative father of Christ, fed his family with fried pancakes on their escape to Egypt. Eureka, there’s the connection! Thus was born the zeppola of San Giuseppe.
In addition to being loved by Neapolitans, it is also a favorite of pastry chefs – indeed, the feast of San Giuseppe is one of their best days, since the focus is on one dessert, the zeppola. Compare that to Christmas, a time when there are dozens of different sweets to prepare and a high risk of having unsold stock. And since so many people eat a zeppola to celebrate the holiday, they often sell out.
The baked version is prepared in an instant – the cream puff dough is wrapped around itself using the pastry bag and goes into the oven for a few minutes. The fried zeppola is a little more complex (in fact, it costs on average 25 percent more than the baked version) – you should always use abundant amounts of fresh oil to avoid the rancid taste of overworked oil.
It is traditional to garnish the zeppola with the finest pastry cream and top quality black cherries. You shouldn’t skimp on the quality and the quantity of the filling, for one of the ways that we describe a miser is with the phrase chillo tene ’na mana a fà’ zeppole, or “someone who is stingy in making zeppole.”
St. Joseph’s Day in 2020 is one we will remember for a long time. For the first time since the post-war period, a pack of zeppole di San Giuseppe cannot be purchased in all of Naples. So I made them at home with my daughters. And the rest of the Culinary Backstreets team in Naples attempted them at home, too – we must not lose heart during these times.
This zeppola recipe is from the Neapolitan gourmand Raffaele Bracale. The original one derives from the famous 19th-century cooking manual by Ippolito Cavalcanti, which, as I mentioned above, provides for double frying, first in oil and then in lard. If that feels like too much work, you can just fry them in vegetable oil.
Recipe: Zeppole di San Giuseppe
For the zeppole:
300 gr flour
250 gr butter
300 ml water
3 pinches of salt
3 spoons of sugar
Plenty of vegetable or peanut oil for frying
300 gr suet
Sour cherries in syrup
For the cream:
1 liter milk
150 gr sugar
6 egg yolks
100 gr flour
2-3 tablespoons potato starch
1 untreated lemon peel
1 vanilla stick
For the zeppole: Put the butter, sugar and water in a large non-stick pan. Place the pan on a moderate heat and start cooking. When it starts to boil, slowly add all the flour and salt to the pan. Stir everything together with a wooden spoon to prevent sticking. When the mixture is homogeneous and detaches easily from the sides of the pan, remove it from the heat. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well until they are incorporated in the dough.
Prepare squares of baking paper. Put the dough in a pastry bag (equipped with a star-shaped spout) and form the rather small donut-shaped zeppole (the zeppole will increase in size when fried).
Prepare two large black cast-iron pans; in one, bring the oil to 100 degrees Celsius, while in the other, heat the suet until it melts. When the oil is boiling, put one zeppola at a time in the pan, together with the baking paper, which will detach immediately from the dough once it’s in contact with the oil and can be taken out with a pair of tongs. When it just turns golden, remove the zeppola from the pan with the oil and immediately transfer it to the one with the suet to complete the browning, then place it on paper towels and let it cool.
For the cream: Heat the milk in a saucepan and mix the sugar with the egg yolks, flour and starch. When the milk starts to boil, add all the ingredients and mix without interruption. Add the lemon zest (washed thoroughly) and the vanilla pod. Continue cooking until the mixture appears creamy and homogeneous. Leave the cream to cool well.
Finally, arrange the zeppole on a serving plate and stuff them, using a sac à poche, with the cream. Decorate each zeppola with some black cherries in syrup and icing sugar.
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