San Giuseppe is Italian for Saint Joseph and March 19 is the Festa di San Giuseppe (Feast of Saint Joseph) in Italy. And we know how much Italians love and pay homage to their Saints. They love to celebrate and with all the saints out there, you can be sure that there’s a Saint being celebrated somewhere in Italy probably every day of the year!
Although the Festa di San Giuseppe was first celebrated in Sicily, it has now spread throughout all of Italy. Legend has it that Sicily suffered a terrible drought and famine during the Middle Ages. It destroyed most of their crops and many people died of starvation. The people of Sicily began praying to Saint Joseph, begging for his help, and in return they would celebrate his name day with religious feasts and an abundance of food. An abundance of food is quite clearly at the centre of everything for Italians, isn’t it? Well, their prayers were answered at midnight on March 19 and the incessant rain that followed turned the dry and barren lands of Sicily into a lush, green, fertile Island!
Zeppole is, basically, deep-fried dough and sprinkled with sugar, much like a sugared doughnut. Zeppole di San Giuseppe, made specifically on Saint Joseph’s Day, can be either fried or baked and are then stuffed with either a custard or a ricotta cheese filling. They are everywhere in Italy on March 19, which incidentally also happens to be Father’s Day in Italy. Here in Montreal, these specialty zeppole can be found in Italian bakeries just before the 19th of March and right up until Easter. Come Easter Monday, and they vanish!. Just like the Easter Bunny!
So to pay homage to my father and to keep my girls rooted with our Italian traditions, I made some for my family. They love these things! The girls were super excited! Peter was questioning why I was baking them instead of going the deep-fry method. Can you guess his preference? I wanted something not so heavy and oily on this day of homage. Besides, I wanted to be able to have two and not feel guilty!
Pastry Dough for Zeppole makes 8
80 g of butter
200 ml of water
120 g of flour
1 teaspoon of sugar
Pinch of salt
Using your fingers, break-up the butter into small pieces and put them into a small saucepan. Add the water, salt and sugar. Heat over medium heat until butter has melted. Remove from heat. Add the flour, sifting it into the butter mixture and whisking until smooth.
Return to heat and with a wooden spoon, keep stirring until the dough comes together and forms a ball. Remove from heat once you see a white film on the bottom of your saucepan. Place the dough on a plate to cool.
Place the cooled dough into the bowl of an electric mixer. You could also use a hand-held mixer or do this by hand. Beat in one egg at a time, ensuring that each egg has been incorporated into the dough before the addition of the next egg.
Scoop the batter into a piping bag. I find this easier to do with the bag draped open over a glass.
Place parchment paper on a baking sheet. Using a star Wilton tip #20, pipe a circle, about 8 cm in diameter. I made my zeppole 3 circles wide (go around in circles 3 times). I then repeated this procedure with a second layer on top.
Bake in a 375 degree F/190 C oven for 35 minutes, until golden on top. Leave in oven for 10 minutes. Once cooled, cut the zeppole in 1/2 and fill with vanilla custard. You can sprinkle some confectioner’s sugar over the zeppole if you wish. You can also add a little splash of colour with a candied cherry in the centre.
500 ml of whole milk
50 g of flour
6 egg yolks
150 g of sugar
1 vanilla bean
Pour the milk into a small saucepan. Slice open the vanilla bean, scrape the seeds and add both to the milk. Heat over medium-low, until it just begins to simmer. Remove from heat. In a small bowl, beat the egg yolks with the sugar. Add to the hot milk mixture. Whisk in the flour and return to heat. Cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until it begins to boil. Remove from heat, transfer to a bowl and cool completely.