Posted by Grace Massa Langlois on Friday, 23rd December 2011

Zeppole di San Giuseppe (Saint Joseph’s Day Fritters), scrumptious deep-fried Italian Fritters are made with pasta choux or bignè (cream puff dough). The pastry dough is piped into nests and deep-fried creating a crispy outer crust.  The choux pastry nests are truly irresistible when filled with crema pasticcera (pastry cream).  For the final tease, the Zeppola is garnished with an amarena cherry (wild cherries in syrup) nestled in the pastry cream.

A photo of 4 Zeppole di San Giuseppe, St. Joseph's Day Fritters on a white rectangular dish set off to the side.

These Saint Joseph’s Day Cakes are sometimes referred to as Bignè di San Giuseppe or sfinci. These light and puffy clouds of sheer indulgence are traditionally served in Italy on St. Joseph’s Day, March 19.  San Giuseppe (St. Joseph’s Day) is a very important Italian holiday.  St. Joseph is the patron saint and protector of the family and la Festa di San Giuseppe is celebrated every year to honour St. Joseph’s role as father of Jesus.  Rather appropriate because Father’s Day in Italy is also celebrated on March 19.  If visiting Italy, the cream-filled fritters start appearing in pastry shops and coffee bars a couple of weeks prior to St. Joseph’s Day.  But on March 19, pastry shops are working triple time preparing thousands and thousands of Zeppole.

A photo of 6 Saint Joseph's Day Fritters, Zeppole di San Giuseppe filled with Crema Pasticcera and topped with an amarena cherry and displayed on a wooden board.

So why am I making Zeppole Fritte so early?  I couldn’t resist!  I had a huge craving for Chocolate Éclairs and before I knew it one batch of éclairs turned into one batch of profiteroles and one batch of Zeppole.  My kitchen island resembled a pastry shop display counter.  Can you imagine the temptation?  Exercising any type of restraint was extremely difficult.

In fact, enjoying only one of any of these pastries is near impossible.  But enjoying only one sweet and delicate Zeppola di San Giuseppe is criminal, enjoying more than one is a must.  I made the pastries fresh this morning and planned on bringing an assortment of pastries to my mom this afternoon but I’m afraid the Zeppole are disappearing quickly and they’re almost all gone.   One batch was clearly not enough. Keep this in mind if you’re planning on making only one batch.

A photo of Zeppole di San Giuseppe on a white rectangular dish.

My family is from Monteferrante, a small town in the region of Abruzzi.  Every year on Saint Joseph’s Day Monteferrante hosts Le Tavole di San Giuseppe (The Tables of Saint Joseph), a special celebration in honour of Saint Joseph.  Preparations for the feast begin a week prior to Saint Joseph’s Day.  Local families prepare a feast for family, friends and neighbouring villages.  The tradition is centred on the story of Joseph and how all rejected him when he was seeking shelter for the very pregnant Blessed Mary. At one time the feast was an offering of food and hospitality for the poorest families.

A photo of various Zeppole di San Giuseppe randomly displayed on square sheets of parchment paper.

Italians from the Sicilian region celebrate Saint Joseph for another reason.  In the Middle Ages the Sicilians were facing famine because of a serious drought.  They prayed to Saint Joseph for rain and they promised Saint Joseph if their prayers were answered they would prepare a feast to honour him.  Of course the rain came and they prepared the feast.  The stories may be different but the custom is the same, feeding the needy and honouring Saint Joseph.

Different regions of Italy celebrate the day differently but all prepare meatless foods. The feast consisted of seafood, pasta with breadcrumbs (breadcrumbs symbolized the sawdust that would’ve covered Saint Joseph’s floor), vegetables, beans (fava beans were for good luck) and fruit.   And of the course the feast ends with an offering of sweets.  One of the traditional desserts is the Zeppole di San Giuseppe.

A photo of Italian pastries, Zeppole di San Giuseppe on a white dish placed on a green cloth napkin.

An interesting bit of information, the fava bean, which is a symbol of good luck and a traditional part of the celebration, was the crop that saved the Sicilian people from starvation.  And another tidbit of information for you, Saint Joseph is the patron saint of pastry chefs.

Although Zeppole di San Giuseppe is the traditional pastry served on Saint Joseph’s Day, preparations for the pastries vary from region to region.   Filling the Zeppole with crema pasticcera (pastry cream) is customary in the Abruzzi and Campania region, in fact Don Pasquale Pintauro, a pastry chef from Naples created Zeppole di San Giuseppe in 1840.  Zeppole can also be rolled in cinnamon sugar or drizzled with honey.  In some variations the pasta choux is made with rice flour.  If you prefer the nests can be baked like profiteroles.  And a very popular variation is the Sicilian Saint Joseph’s Day Fritters, the Zeppole are filled with ricotta cannoli filling.

A photo of zeppole filled with pastry cream and topped with an amarena cherry on a white dish.

The pastry cream recipe I’m sharing today will fill two batches of Zeppole or one if you love pastry cream as much as I do (a little taste here and a little taste there).  When making the nests make sure you pipe as close to the edge of the base as possible because these nests of pastry dough have a mind of their own, when they’re swimming in the hot oil and rolling over themselves they puff up and before you know the edges of the nests are kissing leaving virtually no opening or a very narrow opening for the luscious pastry cream.  And if you’ve ever enjoyed good Zeppole di San Giuseppe you’ve come to expect a generous amount of pastry cream.  Don’t disappoint!

A photo of Italian desserts, St. Joseph's Day Fritters, Zeppole filled with crema pasticcera and topped with an amarena cherry.

An important tip for you, when cooking the nests it’s very important to maintain the temperature of the oil at about 170° C (340° F).  Cooking at a higher temperature will cause the surface of the choux buns to brown too quickly tempting you to remove them from the oil well before the interior of the nests is cooked.  Cooking time is usually about 5 minutes but for best results and to determine the optimal cooking time, when the oil reaches temperature, fry one bun.  When the bun appears to be cooked, remove it from the oil (set-aside to cool slightly) and slice it open to make sure the interior is completely cooked through.  Fry the remainder of the choux nests in batches of three.  Cooking any more than three at one time will decrease the temperature of the oil.  Definitely a big no, no!  We want perfectly cooked, light and puffy nests not raw, heavy and greasy.

A photo of Italian pastries, Zeppole filled with pastry cream and topped with a cherry.

And believe me there’s nothing more disappointing than biting into a zeppola that hasn’t been cooked through, raw dough is very unpleasant.  This method for cooking the choux pastry is a little trickier than baking but taking the time to master this technique is definitely worth the extra effort.  The end result speaks for itself.   And if you want to experience truly authentic Zeppole di San Giuseppe (and trust me you do!) frying the pastry dough is essential.  If you’ve never fried choux pastry before you may want to bake the nests for 2 to 3 minutes in a preheated 200° C (400°F) before deep-frying.  The few minutes of baking time will create a light crust on the surface of the pastry preventing the nests from absorbing too much oil.

Saint Joseph's Day Fritters, Italian pastries displayed on a dark wooden board.

I hope you’ll give these luscious Italian pastries a go especially if you’re having family or friends staying with you over the holidays.  Zeppole di San Giuseppe is a wonderful treat to serve with morning espresso or coffee.

A photo of an extra special Italian pastry, Zeppola di San Giuseppe, an Italian fritter filled with crema pasticcera, dusted with confectioners' sugar and topped with a amarena cherry.

From my family to yours, Wishing you All a very Safe, Happy and Magical Holiday Season!


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Comments (14)

14 Responses to “Saint Joseph’s Day Fritters – Zeppole di San Giuseppe”

  1. Cooking Rookie Says:

    Great recipe! I have never heard of zeppole, or of an idea of deep frying the choux pastry. I wish I could try one of them – those little guys look so cute :-). And I especially love the stripes from the star-shaped tip!
    Thanks for sharing, Grace, and Happy Holidays to you and your family!

  2. Grace Says:

    Happy Holidays to you!

  3. Parsley Sage Says:

    I’m glad you didn’t wait and in fact, I have serious kitchen counter envy right now. It’s a pastry bonanza at your place, by the sound of things :)

    Lovely yummies!


  4. Lauren at Keep It Sweet Says:

    Your zeppole are gorgeous, Grace! I’m sore no one minds that they are early:-) Hope you have a wonderful holiday with your family!

  5. Grace Says:

    Thanks Lauren, Hope you have a great Christmas, all of my best to you & your family. You must love this time of year.I would love to be NYC for Christmas, I’m sure everything looks like a magical winter wonderland.

  6. Elyse @The Cultural Dish Says:

    I love zeppole!!! I always search for these in March on St. Joseph’s day!

  7. Russell at Chasing Delicious Says:

    What beautiful fritters! Yum. My kind of desser!

  8. lyly Says:

    Hi Grace. Your Zeppole looks delicious and Yum. Happy New Year to you and your family.

  9. Grace Says:

    And to you as well, I hope 2012 is everything you hope for and more!

  10. Eliza Says:

    Zeppole are my favorite. Yours are beautifully done, what I like to do is alter the filling by adding in grated orange peal and finely chopped chocolate, it makes them even better if possible.

  11. Grace Says:

    Eliza I love adding zest but my kids are so finnicky, sometimes I add regardless and hope they don’t notice but unfortunately they do each and every time. I’ve never tried adding the chocolate must do that next time for sure!

  12. St. Joseph’s Day « Italian Heritage Club Says:

    […] or so they say.  Poking round on the Internet I found some pretty amazing sites and Grace at offers some truly authentic Italian recipes to suit most any occasion including the every popular […]

  13. M K Says:

    Great stuff! Just curious – is the oven used for anything?

  14. Grace Says:

    MK the oven is only used if you want to bake the nests for a few minutes before deep-frying, baking creates a light crust. If you’ve never fried choux pastry it’s a great way to get your feet wet because it helps to prevent the nests from absorbing too much oil.

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