March 19th is the feast day of San Giuseppe – Saint Joseph, husband of Mary, Jesus’ mum. For this feast day Italians eat various goodies including bignè and zeppole, types of sweet fritter.
This recipe is a modern take on zeppole di San Giuseppe. Or are they bignè di San Giuseppe? The two terms seem to sometimes be interchangeable, but one distinction between the two seems to be as follow. Bignè are choux balls filled with pastry cream (crème patissiere, or crema pasticcera in Italian). Zeppole on the other hand are choux piped in nest shapes that are then filled with pastry cream. Both are cooked by deep-frying. Except when they’re baked.
Different regions and dialects may use the words bignè and zeppole differently. Furthermore, in Gillian Riley’s Oxford Companion to Italy Food, she says in her entry on zeppole: “The sfinci of Sicily are similar”. She doesn’t discuss the similarities or otherwise with bignè. The word is clearly related to the French beignet though.
Ah, the confusing world of the taxonomy of traditional foods!
St Joseph’s Day
Either way, these fritters are made and eaten for St Joseph’s Day. Except, however, I recall seeing them in Rome several weeks before St Joseph’s day, sitting alongside castagnole during Carnival and, if memory serves, remaining available until Easter. So much for the Lenten fast. It’s not unlike the modern British habit of eating hot cross buns for the six weeks preceding Easter, when originally they were made and eaten only on Good Friday to celebrate the end of fasting.
The site Italy Revisited features various different versions of zeppole and bignè in its fascinating collection of recipes. On one of the zeppole recipe pages it says “North Americans often think of ‘zeppole’ as cream puffs because that’s what pastry shops sell in March round the Feast Day of Saint Joseph. However, the cream puff style of zeppole is a rather modern take on this recipe. Apparently, prior to the 20th century ‘zeppole’ was just another donut-shaped fried dough that was sweetened with sugar.” As with all these food traditions, it has mutated over time (see my discussion of simnel cake.)
I was planning to make something that would these days, in Rome at least, be called bignè – a filled choux-ish item. But as I fancied practicising my (very rusty) piping skills I sidestepped to what would now most likely be called zeppole. If any Italians are reading, please tell me what your family calls these things!
Crème patissiere / crema pasticcera
250g milk (full fat)
2 egg yolks
30g cornflour (cornstarch in the US, amido di mais in Italia)
60g caster sugar
Zest of 1 lemon
1 tsp vanilla essence (or fresh vanilla seeds, if you’re so inclined)
1 tbsp Strega liqueur (optional)
1. Put the milk on to heat up.
2. Beat together the egg yolks, sugar and cornflour. Add the vanilla, lemon zest, and Strega if using.
3. Bring to the boil. (If you prefer to use a vanilla pop, scrape out the beans and add them to the milk before you heat it.)
4. Allow the milk to cool slightly then pour it onto the egg mix, beating.
5. Put the mixture back on the heat.
6. Heat the mixture up again, gently, stirring all the time, and keep cooking on a medium heat until it thickens. This shouldn’t take long – a matter of minutes.
7. Pour out into another clean, cool bowl. To prevent a skin forming, dust with icing sugar and/or put some plastic film on the surface.
8. When cool, refrigerate until you need it.
Let’s not beat about the bush. From looking at various Italian recipes really is basically a choux paste.
3 medium eggs, beaten (QB), approx 150g
150g flour – plain, all-purpose or low-protein 00
Pinch of salt
40g caster sugar
Zest of half a lemon
1. Put the butter, water and salt in a saucepan and heat up.
2. Bring to the boil, stirring with a wooden spoon.
3. When the butter has melted and the water is simmering, add all the flour (ideally sieved first), beating until you have a smooth paste.
4. Keeping cooking the mixture, on a low heat, for a few minutes. This gelatinizes the flour, ie makes the mixture gelatinous and jelly-like – it shouldn’t be sticky, and should come away cleanly from the sides of the pan.
5. Remove the mixture from the heat, beat in the sugar and lemon zest, then put in a clean, cool bowl.
6. Allow the mixture to cool. If it’s too hot when you add the egg it will scramble.
7. Beat in the egg slowly and gradually. Each time you add some egg, mix it in completely. You may not need all the egg (QB). You want a thick paste, not runny. If you have a mixer, that’s great for making this type of paste. Mix well.
8. Allow to cool and rest.
To make the zeppole
Sour cherries in syrup or glacé cherries… or not. See below.
1. Put the paste in a piping bag fitted with a star nozzle.
2. Cut out squares of baking parchment or foil, about 8cm square.
3. Pipe nest shapes onto the squares. The older type of zeppole was simply a ring, but as we’re adding crème pat to these, you need a middle – so start by piping a spiral, then build up a slight wall around the edge.
4. Heat sunflower oil in a pan to about 170C and add the nests, paper and all. Don’t overcrowd the pan.
5. The square of parchment or foil will come away. Remove it with tongs.
6. Keep cooking until the zeppole are a golden brown colour.
7. Remove and cool.
8. Once cool, pipe the crème pat into the centre of each.
9. You can top with a cherry. I hate cherries – sour, preserved, glacé or even fresh. Frankly: yuck. That would spoil it for me. So instead, I just dust with icing sugar.
You may notice in the above pic my batches came out different sizes. The ones on the left puffed up best, on the right worst. It’s shoddy work I know. I suspect it’s to do with the oil not staying a constant temperature. Really must get a decent thermometer. Being a boy, obviously I want one of those ray gun ones (er, infrared). I’ll add it to the list of kitchen kit I covet.