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Eat this! Zeppole for St. Joseph’s Day

Zeppole di San Giuseppe. (Photo ©2010 by Leah A. Zeldes.)

Osteria Via Stato will serve complimentary zeppole di San Giuseppe to diners on St. Joseph's Day, March 19. (Photo by Leah A. Zeldes.)

What it is: Zeppole di San Giuseppe are Southern Italian pastries traditionally served for the feast of St. Joseph on March 19, a holiday that often gets undeservedly lost amid all the foofaraw of St. Patrick’s Day, a pity because St. Joe’s Day offers much better food.

Zeppole are typically formed from choux pastry and may be deep-fried, like doughnuts, or baked, and usually contain a filling of custard, pastry cream or sweetened ricotta. In some parts of Italy, they’re called sfinge or bigne di San Giuseppe.

David DiGregorio

David DiGregorio

Where it comes from: St. Joseph is credited with saving Sicily from a severe drought during the Middle Ages. When rain came at last, the Sicilians celebrated by preparing a lavish feast, starting an enduring tradition. St. Joseph’s Day celebrations always feature an array of sweets, because Joseph is the patron saint of pastry chefs. However, zeppole probably didn’t originate until much later. Some sources credit the pastry’s creation to the Neapolitan convent of Santa Patrizia in the 16th century, and note that they were popularized by baker Pasquale Pintauro, who sold them on the streets of Naples each March 19 during the early 19th century.

What to do with it: Zeppole are typically served as part of an elaborate St. Joseph’s Day table, an extensive feast for charity. (Here’s list of 2010 Chicago St. Joseph’s Day tables.)

Zeppole di San Giuseppe
Italian cream puffs for St. Joseph’s Day
Chef David DiGregorio

This zeppola recipe was given to me many years ago by Chef David DiGregorio, now chef-partner at Osteria Via Stato in River North, which will be serving the pastries free to diners on Friday, March 19.

Pastry shells:
1 cup water
3 tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
4 eggs

6 egg yolks
3/4 cup superfine sugar
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 ounce cornstarch
2 1/4 cups whole milk
1 tablespoon dark rum
1 teaspoon orange zest
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups whipping cream, whipped
Powdered sugar for garnish
Dark cherries for garnish

Make the pastry: Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

In a saucepan, boil the water with the butter, salt and sugar. Add the flour all at once and cook over low heat, stirring with a wooden spoon until the mixture pulls away from the sides without sticking. Remove from the fire and beat in the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Let cool.

Line a sheet pan with baking paper. With a pastry bag fitted with a large star tip, pipe the dough into puffs on the sheet. Bake for 5 minutes. Turn the oven down to 350 degrees and bake for approximately 10 minutes more or until golden brown. Remove and let cool.

Make the filling: Beat the yolks with the sugar until very light. Add the flour and cornstarch to the yolk mixture. In a large saucepan over medium heat, bring the milk to a boil slowly, and add the yolk mixture while beating until smooth. Over low heat, cook until thickened, stirring all the time. Remove from heat and add the rum, orange zest and vanilla. Let cool completely and fold in the whipped cream.

Fill: Split the pastries and hollow them out; fill and put the tops back on. Dust with powdered sugar. Top with cherries. 4 servings.

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