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Zeppole -- Fritters for Saint Joseph's Day

From Cosa Bolle in Pentola, the newsletter:
One of the disadvantages of having a Gaelic name (Kyle) and living in Italy is that people cannot spell it: when they are writing my name they look at me, go "huh?" and silently hand me the pen. I'm used to it by now. An added disadvantage of being named Kyle is that I have no saint's day to celebrate -- it's custom to wish people well, and perhaps give a gift on the day the saint with whom they share their name is honored.

People named Giuseppe (Joseph), on the other hand, are especially lucky. His day falls on March 19 and is celebrated throughout Italy. Naples is particularly enthusiastic, with an outdoor market selling caged birds and toys on Via Guglielmo Sanfelice (which was formerly Via San Giuseppe) and Via Medina. The stalls line the sidewalks and the place is awash with kids, some happy because they've found what they wanted and some sad because they haven't, but all excited. And not just about the things for sale.

In addition to the market, writes Jeanne Francesconi in La Cucina Napoletana, San Guiseppe is the day for zeppole. The pastry shops and friggitorie (fried food stands) churn them out in astonishing quantity, for eating Zeppole on the 19th is another of those traditions that must be observed. Despite their size everyone eats at least two or three, or even four, because the sweet, delicate pasta bigné, flavored with a hint of cream and one or two bits of candied cherry, is so good and goes down so smoothly.

The current, refined version of zeppole became a tradition quite late, perhaps towards the end of the 19th century. Among the [older] cookbooks I've consulted Cavalcanti mentions them, but calls them "Tortanetti di pasta bigné" (1865); the zeppole he suggests for San Giuseppe are instead made from a flour-and-water dough that's fried, and dusted with sugar and powdered cinnamon or dipped in honey. It's known that this traditional version was quite ancient. It's also known that on March 19th they were made by the ton in pastry shop and frying stall, as well as at home, and that they were offered to guests and whoever else happened to come by for any reason whatsoever.

We also know that at the beginning of the 19th century a well-known pastry chef, Pintauro, had the tremendously successful idea of frying zeppole on the sidewalk outside his shop -- an idea dictated perhaps by a lack of space inside his shop, or perhaps by the need to compete with the many makeshift friggitorie that sprang up on street corners for San Giuseppe. All the 19th century commentators mention Pintauro, including Don Giulio Genoino who says, in the entry of his 'Nferta [an almanac of sorts] for March 19 1834: "Zeppole de Pasticcere a delluvio -- a flood of zeppole from the pastry chefs. Those made by Pintauro are the best known because he's been at it longest. The bird market at the Ospedaletto (a hospital or foundling hospital). Kids who deafen all with their zerre-zerri (some sort of noismaker). Cook sets for dolls in San Giuseppe (the toy market)." Don Giulio maintained this entry in the almanac until his death in 1856.

Bidera (Emmanuele Bidera, Passeggiate per Napoli e Contorni, Aldo Manuzio, Naples, 1844) and other contemporary writers note that everyone exchanged zeppole: friends and relatives, creditors and debtors, fiancées and lovers: "On the Day there is a great coming and going throughout the city," he says, "with everyone bumping into each other, and all with one or more bags of zeppole hanging from their arms."

This is repeated, with great precision and a wealth of detail by Emanuele Rocco (Le Zeppole, in Usi e Costumi di Napoli e contorni -- Uses and Customs of Naples and Environs, Naples, 1857), who gives Cavalcanti's recipe and adds, jokingly, that the inventor of such a delight deserves a statue with the following plaque: Naples invented zeppole and all Italians licked their fingers. He then says, "Thus our city government will be able to boast that they finally got one right, after all the mistakes they've made and continue to make every day."

Today, continues Ms. Francesconi, zeppole are different and the custom of frying them out in the open and giving most away has been lost. However, two essential components of the tradition live on: eating them on San Giovanni, and the bird and toy market (with the infernal zerre-zerri) is held in Via San Giuseppe, near the ancient Ospedaletto. May I say, without fear of upsetting too many people, that I prefer the ancestral, simple zeppole dusted with sugar and cinnamon or dipped in honey to their equally respectable modern descendents?

Having said this, she presents a recipe for traditional zeppole, to serve 6.

For the dough:
  • 2 1/2 cups (250 g) flour, sifted
  • An equal volume of water
  • A pinch of salt
  • A pot of olive oil for frying (you can use other oils if need be)
  • 1/2 cup (about 125 ml) white wine
For the dredging:
  • 3 teaspoons powdered cinnamon mixed with
  • 1 cup (200 g) sugar

Set the water and wine to heat, and when bubbles form on the bottom of the pot (it's shouldn't come to a full boil) add the flour in one fell swoop and stir constantly with a wooden spoon. When the dough comes out of the pot in a single piece remove it from the fire to a lightly oiled marble work surface and work it, pounding it with a rolling pin, for about 10 minutes so as to make it smooth and homogeneous. Roll the dough into snakes about as thick as your little finger, cut them into 8-inch (20 cm) lengths, and pinch the ends together to make rings.

Heat the oil and fry the zeppole a few at a time, pricking them with a skewer as they fry, so the dough will bubble out and they'll become crunchier and more golden. Drain them on an absorbent paper and dredge them in the cinnamon-and-sugar mixture. They're good hot or cold.

If you choose to dip them in a honey mixture, forgo the sugar and cinnamon mentioned above.

Prepare instead:

  • 3/4 cup (250 g) honey
  • 2/3 cup (125 g) sugar
  • 1 pinch powdered cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 3 tablespoons water
  • Diavolilli (colored candy bits; she calls for 50 g, or 2 ounces by weight)

Make the zeppole and keep them warm

Mix the honey, water and sugar, and cook the syrup until the fine thread stage (squeeze a drop between thumb and forefinger, then separate them; fine threads that break easily should form).

Lower the flame to an absolute minimum, stir in the cinnamon and the vanilla, and dip the zeppole 2 or 3 at a time, removing them with a fork and laying them on the serving dish. When you have finished dipping, sprinkle the zeppole with diavolilli, pour the remaining syrup over them, and serve hot.

Sicilian Zeppole di San Giuseppe.

Classic Italian Recipes

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