“To every nation its doughnut,” is a saying that nobody has ever said, but I really think they should. There are so many variations on doughnuts that’s it’s hard to know where to start. This is the season for Italy’s answer to the deep-fried-and-sweet question. I lived in Venice, where the month of February brought frittelle, the best of which were available in the incognito super cappuccino bar, Da Bonifacio, hidden down an alley behind the Ducal Prison. Though I’ve lived in Venice, Florence, Orvieto and Rome, southern Italy is uncharted territory for me.
Even Italians will tell you that, south of Rome, it’s like a different country. Napoli, certainly, feels like it could be a Levantine or North African city where they happen to speak a (dialect-ridden version of) Italian. The food is amazing, the climate quite distinct, and the culture and traditions, well, different from the central belt between Rome and Florence that is so heavily touristy, and the industrial, perhaps somewhat more Teutonic north. Down south is like the wild west, but the art and food are amazing. Which brings me to zeppole.
What are zeppole?
Zeppole (zeppola in the singular) is a traditional doughnut-like fritter that, rather than stuffed, is twisted into a coil and topped with yumminess. It looks more like those trendy cronuts, puffy and torqued, like a braided churro, with deep-fried choux pastry providing a nest of your choice of topping: old school butter and honey, ricotta and chocolate chips, cream, jam, zabaglione – you name it. March 19 is the Feast of Saint Joseph, which is prime time for zeppole.
You can find more American-style round ring doughnuts covered in sugar, called ciambelle, all over Italy. But these are not true to the territory. Zeppole are, and while you can get them just about anywhere in Italy these days, their true home is anywhere south of Rome (where they are called Bignè di San Giuseppe), southern Lazio (where they are sfinge), but particularly in Salerno. Their deliciousness, and the expansion of Italian immigrants, means that you can find them, with different names, abroad: In Istria, they are called blenzi; in Malta they’re made savoury and stuffed with anchovies; Italian-Americans call them crispelli.
Now let’s pause for moment and weigh the relative merits of the zeppole and the beignet, a distant fried-dough cousin across the border in France. Both are made of choux pastry, meaning the dough has no yeast but rises from its own steam. But unlike the curvaceous zeppole, beignets are square, and their name stems from a root word meaning bump or lump. I’ll let the reader draw their own conclusions about which pastry triumphs, etymologically or otherwise.
The history of Italian zeppole
The Feast of Saint Joseph began as a thanksgiving celebration for the saint allegedly having saved the island of Sicily from a drought at some point during the 10th century and was declared an official Catholic holiday in 1479. This led to Joseph being named “patron saint of pastry chefs,” which is what I think I’d like to be named, if I am ever canonised (it’s a sweeter deal than Saint Crispin, patron saint of cobblers). But deep-frying, because it used so much oil, was not cost-effective and was not regularly done until much later, so zeppole are a newer addition to the March 19 celebrations. Some cite the convent of Santa Patrizia in Naples as having first made zeppole (a baked version, rather than deep-fried), back in the 16th century. But everyone seems to agree that it was made popular by Pasquale Pintauro, a 19th century baker in Naples, who set up a cart on the street every March 19 to sell to celebrating pedestrians. Pasquale, we salute you.
How to make zeppole
Now, I’m not very good with pastry or with deep-frying. I am guaranteed to spray hot oil all over the room, sneeze at an inopportune moment to send a snowfall of powder sugar onto the dog, and otherwise make a mess of things. I avoid making pastries and avoid deep-frying. Though you can bake zeppole, the hardcore version is fried. It was inevitable that I would shower the kitchen with projectile ingredients when trying my hand at it. And the prophecy came true.
My boiling water, salt, sugar and butter (slightly) overflowed and stuck to the pot, despite recipes with a specific warning not to let it boil over and that it might stick to the pot. The flour went in smoothly (both into the pot and onto the cooktop), but my beating in of the eggs resulted in clumps of gooey-ness shimmying around the workspace, dropping to the hob and scorching onto it. I’m impatient and didn’t let it cool enough before pouring it into a pastry bag, and (slightly) burned myself. The hot oil into which I squeezed out the pastry sputtered all around. I managed to undercook or overcook the pastry in the hot oil, then had it boiling too forcefully so the pastry explodes. But the few that came out right, topped with ricotta and chocolate chips, still hot and greasy, were totally killer. Still, all in all, I’d rather let Pasquale make one for me.
But if you are brave or more adept with the deep fryer than me, here are a few more zeppole tips and tricks that would make Pasquale proud. The best oil for frying the pastries is a neutral oil with high smoke point: vegetable oil, peanut oil, or canola oil would all do the trick. If you want to avoid oil altogether, you can actually bake zeppole following a method similar to the one you would use for baking doughnuts. Additional topping ideas are custard, cinnamon sugar, or candied fruit.
So, happy Saint Joseph’s Day! Now I’m off to hose down my kitchen…
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