A year ago, almost to the day, I arrived in Lecce for the first time. I think you never forget your first impressions of a city, especially those cities that are close to your heart. I remember stepping off the train late in the afternoon. The streets of the historic center were so quiet, almost deserted. The only sound I heard were the wheels of my suitcase click-clacking against the cobblestone street. As I made my first stroll through the baroque historic center, I felt a bit lonely. The only eyes I met were those of the strange characters carved out of stone and hanging from buildings, churches and doorways. They stared down at me with smirks that felt like recriminations for coming to Salento solo.
Then I met up with two ladies who introduced me to Antonella, Pina, Antonella, and Debora. We gathered in Piazza St. Oronzo for the Italian unification celebration. Most of Lecce's population came out for the celebration, too, and it seemed that these ladies knew everyone in town. More and more people joined our group, as we popped in and out of cafes, wine bars, bread shops, and pastry shops, meeting proprietors and even more people of the city. Those strange stone characters on the buildings no longer laughed at me, and I have never again felt alone in Lecce or Salento.
Another thing that stands out about this trip, and all trips to Salento since, was that everyone I met either gave me some kind of food gift or offered me something to eat. As it was almost March 19th, St. Joseph's day in Italy, zeppole di San Giuseppe were the most offered gift. In the same way one might offer to get you a coffee, I was offered a zeppola everywhere I went. I remember the first zeppola I had in Puglia with my new friends, and how they waited with baited breath as I chose between the fried and baked version. I can still hear their collective exhale of relief when I chose the fried one. Whenever I see or eat a zeppola di San Giuseppe, I think of my first day in Lecce and all those that I met, who I now call friends.
Fried dough, with an crunchy crust and airy in the center. There's a generous topping of pastry cream flavored ever-so-slightly with lemon and that little bit of chocolate to add even more decadence to the whole thing. If you're in Italy, you're obliged to have at least one of these over the holiday.
On March 19, Italy celebrates St. Joseph's Day, a day dedicated to Joseph the husband of Mary the mother of Jesus. The saint is honored with feasts and parades, especially in the south of Italy. It is the onomastico (Saint's "name day" ~ a second birthday of sorts) for all those named Giuseppe or Giuseppina. Since 1968, the day is also father's day in Italy. Basically, there's a reason for everyone in Italy to celebrate.
Besides the feast, zeppole di San Giuseppe are a huge part of the holiday celebrations. I saw the zeppole in pastry windows at least a week before the actual holiday, but on the actual day, le zeppole fill almost the entire pastry case. The pastry is choux paste fried in the shape of a ring (ciambella) and topped with pastry cream. In Naples, where the first historic account of zeppole di San Giuseppe was recorded in 1837, they add amarena cherries to the top of the pastry cream. The zeppole I've made to celebrate San Giuseppe are the Pugliese version I had on my first day in Salento, topped with a swirl of chocolate ganache or pastry cream.
UPDATE March 19, 2013: As I'm back in Lecce & Puglia during this holiday, I've had the chance to sample many more zeppole. I've realized that most pastry shops here in Lecce actually top off the lemon-infused pastry cream with a generous dollop of chocolate pastry cream. I've changed the recipe a little, allowing for a chocolate pastry cream top.
I'm also certain that they use a little to all lard (depending on the pasticceria) instead of butter in the choux paste and maybe also in the frying. However, I'm going to stick with butter in the recipe. The lard gives the zeppole a denser interior. If you'd like that in your zeppole, you can substitute 2 tablespoons of butter with lard.
Join me in Puglia for a food and wine lover's vacation! cooking with ourJoin me and my food-loving friends in Puglia for an unforgetable journey in the gorgeous sun-drenched heel of the "boot!" We'll be cooking with beautiful Italian mamme and professional chefs. We'll also be eating and exploring our way through the region and making these zepppole, too! For all tour details, see the Food Lover's Culinary Tour in Puglia page.
Zeppole di San Giuseppe
(makes about 12)
For the dough (choux paste):
1 ½ cups (350 ml) water
6 tablespoons (80 grams) butter, cubed
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
½ teaspoon salt
1 1/3 (180 grams) cup all-purpose flour
6 to 8 cups of peanut oil for frying
For the pastry cream:
3 ¼ cups (750 ml) whole milk
Rind of one lemon (only the rind, not the pith)
8 egg yolks
2/3 cup (160 grams) granulated sugar
Scan 1/2 cup (50 grams) cornstarch
3 1/2 tablespoons (25 grams) all purpose flour
4 tablespoons (55 grams) butter, cubed
For the chocolate pastry cream:
4 ounces dark chocolate, chopped in tiny shreds
To make the choux paste: In a saucepan, bring the water, butter, sugar and salt to a rolling boil. (It's important that the butter is in small cubes, so it melts and combines with the water before the mixture comes to a boil.) Add the flour all at once, and remove from the heat. Stir until all the flour is combined. Place back the mixture back on the stove and stir over medium heat for about 5 minutes to dry out the mixture. Remove from the heat and, after allowing the mixture to cool for 10 minutes, add the eggs one at a time. Stir in each egg completely before adding the next.
In a deep pot, heat the oil to 360° F (180° C). Place the choux paste into a piping bag attached with a 14mm star tip (the tip opening should be about 1/2 inch in diameter). Cut 4X4-inch squares of parchment paper. Pipe the choux paste onto the parchment paper, making rings that are little smaller than the paper, 3 1/2 inches in diameter. (I actually piped little "snails" filling the center, but it wasn't necessary as the dough rises quite a bit as it fries, leaving only a small hole in the center.) Place the choux paste and parchment paper into the oil. Once the dough starts frying, the paper will fall away easily; then remove it from the pan. Fry the zeppole about 4 minutes on each side. Depending on the pan size, fry only 2 or 3 zeppole at a time, so you don't lower the temperature of the oil. Once the zeppole are cooked through, place on paper towels to drain. Sprinkle with powdered sugar once they've cooled slightly.
To make the pastry cream: Place the milk and the lemon rind in a nonreactive heavy bottom sauce pot and leave for 20 minutes. Then bring the milk to a scald. Let the lemon rind steep in the milk for 10 minutes. In the meantime, in another bowl, whisk together the sugar and egg yolks until the mixture becomes pale. (The whisk must be nonreactive also.) Add the cornstarch and flour and whisk to combine.
Strain the lemon rind out of the milk, and slowly pour the warmed milk into the egg yolk mixture. Whisking together as you pour. Once all the milk and egg yolk mixtures are combined, place back into the saucepot and over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, whisking vigorously the entire time. Once the mixture has boiled, cook for another 2 minutes, again stirring the entiring time. Remove from the heat and strain through a fine-mesh seive.
To make the chocolate pastry cream: As soon as you've strained the pastry cream through the fine-mesh sleeve and while it is still hot, take 1 1/4 cups of the pastry cream and pour over the chopped chocolate. Let sit for about 1 minutes then whisk the melted chocolate and the pastry cream together until all the ingredients are combined and smooth.
Add the butter to the top of both flavors of pastry cream, stirring in once the butter has melted. Place the bowls into an ice bath and let cool for 10 minutes. Spread each flavor of the pastry cream into its own glass dish (9x13 for the lemon-infused and 8x8 for the chocolate) and cover with plastic wrap. The plastic wrap should be touching the pastry cream to keep the cream from developing a film. Refrigerate until cold.
To assemble the zeppole: Place the pastry cream into a piping bag fitted with a 12mm star tip. Into the center of each zeppole, pipe the pastry cream. I piped a generous two "snail-shaped" circles of pastry cream, one on top of the other. Place the ganache into a piping bag fitted with a 10mm star tip. Pipe a small ring of ganache on the top center of each zeppole. They are best minutes after they've been garnished, and should be eaten the day they've been made. Enjoy!
NOTE: To make the Neapolitan version, with a cherry topping instead of the chocolate one, you need a jar of amarena cherries, or another type of sour cherries, in syrup. Drain some of the syrup from the cherries, and top each zeppole with one or two cherries.
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