Zeppole (zeppola in the singular) is a traditional doughnut-like fritter that, rather than stuffed, is twisted into a coil and topped with yumminess.
It looks more like those trendy cronuts, puffy and torqued, like a braided churro, with deep-fried choux pastry providing a nest of your choice of topping: old school butter and honey, ricotta and chocolate chips, cream, jam, zabaglione – you name it. March 19 is the Feast of Saint Joseph, which is prime time for zeppole.
You can find more American-style round ring doughnuts covered in sugar, called ciambelle, all over Italy.
But these are not true to the territory.
Zeppole are, and while you can get them just about anywhere in Italy these days, their true home is anywhere south of Rome (where they are called Bigne di San Giuseppe), southern Lazio (where they are sfinge), but particularly in Salerno.
Their deliciousness, and the expansion of Italian immigrants, means that you can find them, with different names, abroad: In Istria, they are called blenzi; in Malta they’re made savoury and stuffed with anchovies; Italian-Americans call them crispelli.
THE HISTORY OF ITALIAN ZEPPOLE
The Feast of Saint Joseph began as a thanksgiving celebration for the saint allegedly having saved the island of Sicily from a drought at some point during the 10th century and was declared an official Catholic holiday in 1479.
This led to Joseph being named “patron saint of pastry chefs,” which is what I think I’d like to be named, if I am ever canonised (it’s a sweeter deal than Saint Crispin, patron saint of cobblers).
But deep-frying, because it used so much oil, was not cost-effective and was not regularly done until much later, so zeppole are a newer addition to the March 19 celebrations.
Some cite the convent of Santa Patrizia in Naples as having first made zeppole (a baked version, rather than deep-fried), back in the 16th century. But everyone seems to agree that it was made popular by Pasquale Pintauro, a 19th century baker in Naples, who set up a cart on the street every March 19 to sell to celebrating pedestrians. .
For the zeppole (yields about a dozen):
- 200 g (1 cup) all purpose flour, sifted
- 200 ml (1 cup) water
- 4 medium eggs
- 1/2 tsp cornstarch
- 100 g (1/2) butter, softened
For the creamy filling:
- 4 leveled tbsp flour, sifted
- The rind or 1 small, organic lemon, closely trimmed of white pith
- 150 gr (3/4-cup) sugar
- A vanilla bean (slit open lengthwise and scraped), or 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- The yolks of 4 very fresh eggs
- 500 ml (2 cups) whole milk
- 2 tbsp confectioner’s sugar
- A handful of Amarene(sour cherries stored in syrup)
For Crema Pasticcera
- The first thing you should prepare is the custard, crema pasticcera.
- Boil the milk with the vanilla and the lemon peel.
- In the meantime, lightly whisk the yolks and the sugar in a large mixing bowl to obtain a frothy mixture.
- Add the flour and keep stirring with a wooden spoon for roughly 4 minutes.
- Fish out and remove the vanilla pod (if you’re using it) and the lemon rind, and combine with the eggy mixture in a deep saucepan.
- Continue cooking the custard over mild heat until it barely reaches a slow boil.
- Count to 120 while stirring constantly and it’s done. Note: depending on your eggs and milk, the crema pasticcera may thicken to the proper consistency before it boils.
- It should reach a point where it roughly resembles the texture of commercially sold firm yogurt.
- Transfer the crema pasticcera to a bowl and let it cool, gently stirring it often to keep a “skin” from forming across the top.
- Now onto the zeppole. Set the water, butter and a pinch of salt to heat, and when bubbles form on the bottom of the pot (it shouldn’t come to a full boil) add the flour in one single swoop and stir constantly with a wooden spoon for 10 minutes.
- Remove from the stove and transfer the mixture to another clean vessel to allow it to cool at room temperature.
- Stir in the eggs one by one into a smooth, firm and homogeneous dough.
- Cut 5-inch squares of parchment or oiled paper, and place on a large work surface.
- Stuff the dough in a Ziploc bag and snip off a corner of it, using it as a “sac à poche” pastry chef’s pocket.
- Squeeze out the dough to form 3-inch doughnuts and rest each on the parchment paper squares, keep in the fridge for another 20 minutes.
- Frying the zeppole is tricky. Neapolitans insist on this procedure, and I’m reporting it as instructed by an eminent homemaker.
- You need 2 separate frying pans on the burners: in one the oil is warm, the other it is piping hot.
- In the first warm one, the zeppole puff up and detach from the paper, in the second they turn golden and crisp.
- I suggest you fry 2 zeppole per pan at a time, removing them as they reach the desired golden hue.
- Drain on a paper towel and cool before garnishing: slit them open and slather with your custard, recomposing the “sandwich” on a serving plate.
- Complete with a dusting of confectioner’s sugar and a couple of syrupy amarena sour cherries per fritter. Park on your lap and prepare for ecstasy.