Zeppole and Saint Joseph
Saint Joseph’s Day .I can still see my father coming home, a great smile on his face and his hands laden with several white bakery boxes tied with that ever so thin string tied in a bow. He had just returned from a pilgrimage back into the city, a pilgrimage from our fourth generation suburban home to our original 19th century nesting ground. My father had been either to Isgro’s or Termini’s bakery in South Philadelphia.
We crowded around him like panting puppies anticipating their daily treat. A small black handled knife cut the strings. The boxes opened. The waxed paper covers flew aside. In each box shimmered the most beautiful display of pastry jewel work: zepolle.Zeppole, wonderful rings of striated pastry, some stuffed with white bursting ricotta others oozing vanilla or chocolate pastry cream and all topped with snowy white sugar and a glistening candied cherry.But the zeppole were not all. For good measure, another set of boxes revealed the phalanx of cannoli, again stuffed either with ricotta or with pudding and all sprinkled in powdered sugar.
In the middle of Lent, two days blew away the doldrums’ clouds of fasting and abstinence:March 17th, and March 19th. March 17th is Saint Patrick’s Day. My mother of Irish descent set out the side board with pans of Irish soda bread and dishes of Irish potatoes. We snuck the Irish potatoes into our mouths as we waited for that sent-from-heaven dinner of corned beef boil. A dinner of corned beef, cabbage, potatoes and carrots boiled in beer and garnished with mustard, a dinner we relished only on that day. Two days later we celebrated the feast of Saint Joseph.Once again, Lenten restrictions lifted and Saint Joseph’s Day was a day to indulge.
The history of Saint Joseph’s Day celebrations dates to ancient times. In the Roman world, March 17th was the start of the Spring equinox, that time of the year when day and night are equal in length. The Greeks who settled southern Italy in the 8th century BC brought with them the cult of Bacchus whose rites were celebrated on March 17th. At first the rites were limited to women. Eventually, as the cult spread northward to Rome, men also participated. By the second century BC the rituals became so excessive that they were banned by the Roman senate. The outlawing of ritual however, is rarely effective and the celebrations continued. By Christian times, the Bacchic rites were converted to Christianity.
The excesses of the pagan gods now demonstrated itself in a new way, the Altar of Saint Joseph: a table laden with every kind of bread and pastry imaginable. While I do not recall ever seeing a Saint Joseph’s day altar in Philadelphia I have found that they are still found among Italian Americans in Louisiana.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NH1EYDvc3DU
How Saint Joseph became associated with pastries depends on which legend you know. One version recounts that Joseph, having fled his family to Egypt to escape Herod’s slaughter of the Innocents, found himself without employment.To earn his living he sold small fried pastries. In another tale, that I found recounted in verse, Mary wants to invite friends to their home to eat.The problem is that she cannot come up with anything worthwhile.Then after three days of futile attempts wonderful pieces of fried dough miraculously come from the stove.Joseph becomes somewhat upset. He says that miracles must be reserved for important things and not for simple daily comforts. Suddenly, the baby Jesus speaks up and says that these little cakes will bring a little bit of happiness to all people in their harsh lives. In a third version, Mary finds that she has no food for her family. A voice tells her to go to Joseph’s workshop and to ask him for the chips that have fallen to the floor. She is to take the chips and fry them. Lo and behold, the chips become wonderful fried dough. Whichever story you prefer, it’s the end result that counts: fried dough, what we call “zeppole.”
The word “zeppole” itself is of ancient origin. Carol Field’s indispensable Celebrating Italy notes, “The term zippola used in Sicily is thought to come from the Arabic zalabiyha, which means a soft doughy made from other ingredients and fried in oil; sfinci comes from the Arabic sfang, a fried pastry. (p.399) While the correct Italian word is “zeppola” ( singular) and “zeppole” (plural), among Italian Americans the pastry is usually called “zeppoli.” As often happens as languages evolve the vowel sound of the Italian feminine, plural ending “e” (ay) shifted to the masculine plural “I” (ee). However you say it doesn’t change the delight in eating.
What constitutes a zeppola is the next question.The simplest and most ancient zeppola is any kind of left over dough that has been fried and sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon. They are usually eaten while still warm from the fryer. The simple fried dough balls happened at any time of the year as a kind of by-product when my mother was frying something else. We never called them zeppole. They had no specific name. They were just a quick snack made from some left over dough or batter. Williamsburg, Brooklyn is a great place to find this simple version where left over pizza dough becomes dessert.
The zeppole made from cream puff pastry are another story.
At the other end of the spectrum were the pastries that came from bakeries such as Isgro’s or Termini’s. These were not made at home. These pastries were the ones we called “zeppoli” (zeppole). Unlike the home kitchen fried dough ball the bakery shop zeppole was made from egg based pastry dough prepared much in the same way as a cream puff or French “pâte à choux.” These pastries are neatly rounded and ribbed with a hole in the center, like a cruller.The cruller design allows the dough to cook evenly and completely. (The traditional “dropped” dough of the home zeppola can often have a raw center.) It would seem that the evolution of the zeppola follows the same pattern as the evolution of the common doughnut from a ball of fried dough to the ring cake we know today. And the cause is the same: to thoroughly fry the center of the pastry.
If you so decide, you can press the dough through a pastry bag fitted with the proper end. Press the dough directly into the hot oil. You will not get a perfect pastry shop ring, but you will have a very nice fritter that you can top with cheese or with sugar and cinnamon.
The refined cruller version of the zeppola probably came to the Kingdom of Naples during the reign of the Bourbons. At that time the aristocracy had their French trained chef called a “monsù” or “monzurrò,” a title that is a corruption of the French “monsieur.” (Monzurrò happens to be the family name of my paternal great-grandmother.) In the curious twists of history, puff pastry was introduced to the French by Marie de Medici's Italian chef Poelini, So the pastry we know today came from Italy, went to France and came back again. There is also another tradition that says the new, more sophisticated version was created by the nuns of the convent of Saint Basil. In either case, Emmanuele Rocco, in 1857, in his Uses and Customs of Naples and Environs proudly noted, “Naples invented zeppole and all Italians licked their fingers.”
Preparing the pastry