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St. Joseph’s zeppole An old recipe for one of the most delicious desserts in Southern Italy.
There are many variations: without cream, with cream and cherries in syrup or with cream and chocolate cream sauce. They are all irresistible
by Dario Ersetti
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St. Joseph’s zeppole. In Lecce and its surrounding towns they are garnished with superfine sugar, pastry cream and chocolate cream sauce. Very good! Photo by Dario Ersetti

      St. Joseph’s zeppole is a typical dessert of southern Italy that belongs to the family of fritters. It seems that over the centuries they have undergone a transformation. The recipe of the classical zeppole is very simple and does not require the use of eggs or fat or yeast. It’s probably the same recipe used by Joseph when, with Mary and Jesus, in Egypt he had to sell fritters to sustain his family. The name seems to derive from this fact.

      The classic recipe for zeppole, the one suggested by Ippolito Cavalcanti, Duke of Buonvicino at the beginning of the 1800’s, uses just a few ingredients: flour, water, a bit of aniseed liqueur, Marsala or white wine, salt, sugar and frying oil.

      The more modern version, which is the most commonly used today, however, makes use of choux pastry.

      Choux pastry, which is miraculous due to its versatility, actually originated in the 1500’s: it was the creation of an Italian pastry chef living in Paris in the entourage of Catherine de Medici, and it was used for various food preparations.

      The same dough, when cooked in boiling water, becomes the Parisian gnocchi or dumplings; in the oven, it becomes choux pastry puffs, éclairs, Saint-Honore cake, Paris-Brest ring cake, salambos, profiteroles, and savory gourgéres and talmouses; in boiling oil it becomes dauphine potatoes, lorette potatoes, cheese beignets, Pignatelli beignets, and i pets de nonne (which is better off not being translated), a kind of sugary puff pastry fritter, and finally our St. Joseph’s zeppole.



The recipe


Ingredients for thirty zeppole:


For the DOUGH

- 300 g of flour

- 80 g butter

- 6 eggs

- 1/4 liter of water

- a pinch of salt

- extra virgin olive oil or lard for frying




- 1/2 liter of milk

- 125 g of sugar

- 4 egg yolks

- 50 g of refined flour

- 1/2 vanilla bean or a little lemon peel (yellow part only)



- cherries in syrup

- powdered sugar

or, in place of cherries in syrup, garnish with a dollop of chocolate cream sauce, made by mixing 2-3 teaspoons of unsweetened cocoa powder with a little of the cream



Preparing the dough


      In a saucepan melt the butter and salt in water. Bring mixture almost to a boil and then add in the flour, stirring vigorously to avoid the formation of lumps. Continue to stir the dough until it pulls away from the sides of the pot. Let the mixture cool and then add an egg, stirring gently until it is completely absorbed; add the second egg following the same procedure, then the third and so on. It is difficult to know exactly how many eggs you need, since there are too many variables, including the quality of the flour, the size of the eggs and the degree of moisture in the dough. You will know when to stop adding eggs when the dough starts to have difficulty absorbing one.

      For perfectionists we will tell you that the more eggs you put in the dough, the more it will puff up, and a way to increase the absorbed number of eggs is to dry the dough, keeping it over heat and continuing to stir it for some time after it has pulled away from the sides of the pot.



Pastry cream filling preparation


      In a saucepan, bring milk to boil with vanilla bean or lemon peel. Remove from heat and leave it for a few minutes to allow the infusion of flavor and then remove the vanilla bean or lemon peel.

      Mix sugar with flour. Put egg yolks in a bowl, beat them well with a whisk, then pour in a little of the warm milk mixture, stirring constantly, and then slowly add the egg mixture to the bowl with the sugar and flour. Stir until mixture is smooth, then add the remaining milk mixture, stirring constantly. Pour mixture into saucepan and bring to a boil over low heat, stirring constantly, as it tends to stick to the bottom of the pan. Boil until the cream thickens.



Fry the zeppole, and garnish


      Cut sheets of parchment paper into squares about 10 cm in size.

      Using a pastry bag with a wide tip, pipe the dough into ring shapes onto the parchment paper. Toss one zeppole at a time along with its parchment paper into the hot frying oil, which should be plentiful and hot, but not smoking, or the pastry won’t puff up. Increase heat to brown them, drain them and place them on absorbent paper. To streamline the process it would be ideal to have two frying pans with oil at different temperatures, where you place the zeppole into the pan with the hotter oil first, so it puffs up, and then move it to the other pan with the oil at a lower temperature to brown it.

      When they have cooled, pipe a little custard cream into the center, then garnish with cherries in syrup and sprinkle with powdered sugar. This is the version of Apulia and Naples, while in Salento in place of cherries in syrup a little chocolate cream sauce is used along with a sugar (superfine, in this case) ground cinnamon mixture which is put on before the chocolate cream sauce.

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