In Italy, March 19th is the feast day of San Giuseppe (Saint Joseph) and also Father's Day. It's a particularly important celebration in southern Italy and most celebrated in Sicily, where San Giuseppe is the patron saint. As with all Italian celebrations, it involves traditional foods, and the most well-known of these is the zeppola di San Giuseppe, an airy doughnut filled or topped with pastry cream and finished off with an amarena (a dark sour cherry in syrup—you can often find them in Italian food stores, specialty food stores, or online) on top. Although, as with most Italian dishes, the name and ingredients can vary widely by region, pastry shops throughout Italy sell fried pastries on this day. Sometimes they are simply dusted with powdered or granulated sugar, or they can be filled with whipped cream, chocolate cream, custard, or sweetened ricotta studded with chocolate or candied fruit. This recipe is for the most famous and widespread version, which originated in Naples.
Although they're fried, zeppole are light and not overly sweet, as the dough is the same as the light and airy pâte à choux dough used for cream puffs, eclairs, and other classic French treats, and contains no sugar. In fact, for a lighter version, you can easily bake them instead of frying.
- For the Dough:
- 1 cup water
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- Pinch of fine sea salt
- 2/3 cup all-purpose flour
- 3 medium eggs
- For the Pastry-Cream Filling:
- 2 egg yolks
- 1/4 cup granulated sugar
- 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour or cornstarch
- 1 cup milk
- 1 teaspoon lemon zest
- For Frying and the Garnish:
- Neutral oil for frying
- Powdered sugar
- Amarene cherries in syrup
For the Dough
Note: while there are multiple steps in this recipe, this dessert is broken down into workable categories to help you better plan for preparation and cooking.
Place water, butter, and salt in a small saucepan over high heat. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly.
When the butter has melted, whisk in the flour and continue to stir, with a whisk or wooden spoon, until batter is smooth and does not stick to the sides of the pot.
Remove from heat and transfer the dough to a bowl to cool to room temperature.
Once it has cooled, add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Refrigerate the dough while you prepare the pastry cream filling (20 to 30 minutes).
For the Filling
In a small bowl, beat the egg yolks with the sugar until combined.
Add the flour to the egg mixture, whisking well until combined.
Place milk and lemon zest in a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. When the milk begins to boil, remove it from the heat and slowly add the egg mixture, constantly whisking, until the mixture is smooth.
Return to medium heat and continue whisking until the cream thickens.
Transfer the cream to a bowl, cover the surface with a piece of parchment paper, and let cool. Meanwhile, make the zeppole.
For the Zeppole
Prepare 8 (3-inch) squares of parchment paper or aluminum foil. Transfer the dough to a pastry bag with a star-shaped tip. Pipe a ring of dough onto each square of paper or foil, about 2 inches in diameter, to form a doughnut shape.
Heat several inches of frying oil in a large pot with high sides to 320 F (160 C). Drop the zeppole (still on the paper or foil) in the oil one or two at a time to avoid crowding. The paper or foil will detach itself after a few seconds and you can remove it from the oil with tongs or a slotted spoon.
When puffy and golden brown, remove each zeppole with a slotted spoon and drain on a paper towel-lined platter or tray.
When cool enough to handle, fill another pastry bag with pastry cream and attach a star-shaped tip. Slice the zeppole in half and fill with a ring of pastry cream. Place the top half on the cream and then fill the center hole with a little more pastry cream.
Place an amarena cherry on top of the cream in the center of each doughnut, then dust all of them lightly with powdered sugar. Serve hot.
- Add 1/2 to 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest to the dough as well the pastry cream.
- You can bake the zeppole instead of frying them for a lighter treat. Bake the zeppole on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet, with plenty of space in between, at 375 F (190 C) for 25 to 30 minutes, or until they are puffy and evenly golden brown.
- Instead of slicing them in half and filling them, just add a dollop of pastry cream to the center of each zeppola, then top it with an amarena cherry.
- You can omit the filling and just dust the fried zeppole with powdered sugar.
- Use your own canned cherries without added sugar for a healthier dessert.