HAIL TO THE ZEPPOLA

Every March 19th reappears with renewed excitement. Despite their size, everyone eats at least two or three, or even four. Six ounces of delight never tasted better.

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Buongiorno amici:

During a famine in Sicily, when food was scarce and many people were starving, faith seemed the only answer for the less fortunate. St. Joseph was known as the protector of the Holy Family; thus, Italians with solid family relationships prayed for the Saint to intercede to ensure successful crops. The famine reached cessation, and in gratitude, people promised to make annual offerings of their most precious possession – food – in honor of the beloved Saint.

In ancient Rome, on March 17th, the Liberalia was celebrated ", honoring the wine and wheat divinities. People paid homage to Bacchus by flowing wine into the rivers while wheat fritters celebrated Silenus. Two days later, on March 19th, the zeppola for Saint Joseph appeared on every ritual.

The version that we consume today was born as a conventual dessert. To many, the birthplace was the convent of Saint Gregorio Armeno and, for others, the convent of Saint Patrizia. Some historians argue on the validity of the convents mentioned above and include the Holy Cross's convent in Lucca's Tuscany.

As with everything in Italian food history, we will never know the natural source, but living within legends makes the country—an enigma of flavors and traditions intermingled with Christianity, which pleases the souls and the palates. However, we know for sure that the famous Neapolitan gastronome Ippolito Cavalcanti Duke of Buonvicino included a zeppola (e) recipe in one of his writing around 1837.

On March 19th, near the end of winter, the celebration of the so-called "agrarian purification rites" occurs. Large bonfires decorate the nights in many southern regions, and zeppoles float in large quantities in scalding vegetable oil. Also, children receive wooden toys, honoring Saint Joseph, the carpenter. Today, however, since 1968, March 19th has been decreed as Father's Day, and children offer gifts to their fathers.

On March 19 of the 18th-century, fryer shops throughout the city of Naples moved their operations outdoor to serve the Zeppole directly to the public, standing patiently on the streets. They paid homage to the Saint in the most unusual manner. Today, in the imminence of the holiday, San Giuseppe's zeppola can be found everywhere in the territory and year-round, especially in the "Mignon" format. Many Neapolitan have been forced to submit, in the name of a pragmatic and healthy "less, but for longer." Over time sugar and cinnamon have been replaced by custard and wild black cherry as a garnish.

The San Giuseppe zeppola is not a zeppola like the others. It is perhaps the best known but also the latest arrival. Before, there were three other types of Zeppole.

1) The classic "zeppola," one of the oldest known sweets.

2) The zeppola graffa.

3) The zeppola pastacrisiuta. (Leavened).

1) The classic zeppola: the most senior, in the shape of a circle, is made with simplicity, mixing sifted flour with water and salt. From the smooth and soft dough, the obtained shapes are fried in hot (but not boiling) oil, then rolled in sugar and cinnamon. Before the arrival of sugar, honey was the natural sweetener of choice, used in its place: before vegetable or olive oil, there was lard as the preferred fat.

2) Graffa resembles a ciambella (oversized donut), covered with sugar and cinnamon, but it differs in the type of dough, having potato as an ingredient in the mix for additional softness. Its name correlates to Krapfen, the round Austrian cake filled with cream as an extra richness. The name of Krapfen derives from Veronica Krapf, the Austrian baker who invented it.

3) The pastacrisciuta (risen dough) zeppola is a salty zeppola. Same name but also different in shape from the other similars. You may shape it like a meatball or, better, a clam cake if you live in New England. Take a pinch of leavened dough and drop it into hot vegetable oil. This type of zeppola is available in many fry shops, along with the typical panzerotti and without any fillings. You can eat them while standing up on sidewalks and parks enclosed in the classic paper cone, which absorbs the excess oil and is strictly hot. Perhaps the most striking example of "the ante literam" fast food concept.

San Giuseppe's zeppola is more recent and made from a completely different type of dough from the French choux (in Naples "sciù"), also called bignè, and baked in the oven. For dietary reasons, today, again, San Giuseppe's zeppola is offered in the "baked" variant: the real one, however, remains the fried one.

Eating Zeppole on the 19th is another of those traditions observed by Italians and non. Despite their size, everyone eats at least two or three, or even four, because the sweet, delicate pasta bigné, flavored with a hint of cream and one or two bits of candied cherry, is so good and goes down so smoothly. Tomorrow the diet will begin.

I am enclosing a recipe I have used for several years. It is much easier to buy them from your favorite bakery, but there is nothing like making them from scratch, the smell throughout the kitchen walls, and the richness of the home-made filling cream.

Also, if you need to purchase your zeppole for your holiday or a sweet tooth, La Salle Bakery takes the lead. Two locations in Providence, freshly made zeppole filled with house-made pastry cream, which is a luxury these days. Ask for Mike Manni and you’ll get what you need as far as quality and tradition. Watch the YouTube video on a recent interview.

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Baked zeppole Yield 12

Ingredients for the pastry dough (pate’ a choux)

2 -3/4 cups all-purpose 00 Italian flour

A pinch of kosher salt

Two cups of bottled water

Six tablespoons of pure unsalted butter

Six large organic eggs

Ingredients for the custard filling

1/4 cup of potato starch

Two cups of whole milk

3/4 cup granulated sugar

Three large egg yolks (organic)

Confectioner’s sugar to preference

Amarena wild cherries, drained

To make the pastry:

In a heavy saucepan, heat the water. Add the butter and the salt and remove from the stove once the butter has melted. Add the flour all at once. Beat with a wooden spoon. Return the pan to medium heat and beat the mixture until it forms a ball. Remove the pan from the heat again. Add the eggs in one at a time, beating the dough with a wooden spoon or hand mixer. Blend in each egg well before proceeding to add in the next one. Cool the mixture until warm. Fill a pastry bag halfway with pastry mix.

Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.

Create concentric circles of dough. Each dough disc must then be surmounted by another circle of dough, giving "thickness" to the puff, about 1 -1/4-inch in circumference. Place the shaped rings about 1/2 inch apart on the prepared cookie sheet. Bake the puffs for about 15 minutes at 400 degrees F and then for 10 minutes at 375 degrees. Transfer the pastries to cooling racks.

To make the custard (filling)

In a medium bowl, mix the potato starch and sugar for the filing. Set aside. In a medium saucepan, heat the milk over medium-high heat until it’s almost boiling. Add the six eggs to the sugar and the potato starch, and gradually add three tablespoons of warm milk. When it’s well-blended, pour it into the pot with the rest of the milk and continue to cook until the mixture thickens. Cool in a ventilated area.

To serve:

Use a small knife to cut each zeppole in half, or make a small incision on the side and fill using a pastry bag. Fill each zeppole with some custard, replace the top half, and put the zeppole on a serving dish. Add one amarena cherry to each zeppole and dust with the confectioner’s sugar. Serve immediately. Zeppole will remain fresh in the fridge for a maximum of two days.

Suggestions from the chef

1) For the San Giuseppe zeppole recipe, it is preferable to use a static oven because, with the ongoing fan, they could deform. If you have a gas oven or electricity, you can prepare excellent zeppole.

Why do the zeppole deflate?

2) The zeppole shells in the oven may look pretty swollen, but they deflate once taken out of the range. The blame falls on the humidity: you have probably cooked the dough on the low heat and remain raw on the inside. The cooking time and the oven’s temperature are crucial. Focus on these elements.

A trick: the donuts first baked and then fried

3) To make the zeppole di San Giuseppe even tastier, just put a little trick into practice: put them first in the hot oven and then fry them. In this way, you will have donuts that have the consistency of baked ones but are then soft like fried ones. Besides, you can put lard or lard in the Zeppole version from the oven instead of butter. Just remember that the calories of the zeppole will increase.

{Images Attribution via Chef Davide Giordano} Please visit his Facebook platform HERE

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