Zeppole di San Giuseppe, is a traditional Neapolitan pastry that is typically eaten on Father’s Day. Discover the ancient origins of this delicious treat and make them at home with this recipe
1h 40 min
About this Recipe
By: Silvana Lanzetta
Zeppole di San Giuseppe are the traditional Neapolitan treats that are prepared on the 19th of March, for the Italian Father’s Day.
As a child, I remember my mum waking up early on the 19th of March to prepare these delightful pastries. I can still smell the aroma of the dough cooking in the kitchen, and the anticipation of the first bite made it hard to concentrate on anything else!
Now, I have to admit, when I was younger, I wasn’t too keen on the sour cherries that topped these treats. But who could blame me? As a kid, I was all about the creamy custard filling and the fluffy choux pastry.
I remember going to school on Father’s Day, and my friends and I would exchange opinions on how many zeppole we were going to eat when we got home. The most outrageous claim came from Biagio, the skinniest of my classmates, who shouted out that he was going to eat them all!
An ancient treat
Did you know that this pastry has an ancient history dating back to ancient Rome? The zeppola is actually a distant relative of the “pasta cresciuta,” or “zeppola,” a fluffy dough that is fried in abundant oil and served with a sprinkle of salt, The name zeppola comes from the Latin cippus meaning “stump.” This name describes its shape: a small wedge, fried in hot oil which swells. The grown pasta helped feed the limping lower classes, and over time, it evolved into the serpula (snake in Latin), a larger and sweeter version shaped like a coiled snake.
But why are they made on the 19th of March?
At the time of the first zeppole there was the ancient festival of Liberalia. It was celebrated on March 17th, and dedicated to the gods of wine and wheat – Silenus, Bacchus, and Apollo. People used to drink rivers of wine with honey and spices and enjoyed wheat pancakes fried to eat on the go – both sweet and savoury. And on 19th March, spring was celebrated with agricultural purification rites, which signalled the end of winter. Today, many communities in the South still celebrate Saint Joseph with big bonfires and loads of pancakes.
Nuns might have created the zeppole as we know today
The zeppole of today is a variation of these ancient treats, filled with custard and topped with sour cherries.
While zeppole recipes were scarce in gastronomic literature until the 1700s, Ippolito Cavalcanti’s “Theoretical-Practical Cuisine” in 1837 was the first written record of zeppole. However, it is widely believed that the invention of the zeppole can be attributed to the nuns of San Gregorio Armeno, Croce di Lucca, or Splendore, all in Naples. Some even attribute the pastry to Pintauro, the inventor of the sfogliatella.
The pastries are fried in sunflower oil, which contribute to a significant amount of fat and calories. The sour cherries in syrup and powdered sugar used for decoration also add to the calorie and sugar content. It’s important to enjoy these delicious Zeppole di San Giuseppe in moderation as part of a balanced diet.
- Proteins 6% 6%
- Carbs 34% 34%
- Fats 58% 58%
Zeppole di San Giuseppe
The choux pastry
You may have heard that traditionally, zeppole are always fried in oil. But, did you know that in the last 20 years, more and more Italians have been experimenting with baking them instead? The goal is to make the zeppole a bit lighter and healthier, while still enjoying that classic taste.
Now, in this recipe, I’ve decided to use a hybrid cooking method that combines the best of both worlds. By baking the zeppole first, they become a bit more oil-proof and therefore absorb less oil during frying. Plus, we still get to enjoy that delicious taste and texture that comes from frying them.
When it comes to making these amazing Zeppole di San Giuseppe, the size of your eggs really matters! To get the best results, it’s important to use medium-sized eggs for this recipe.
Now, if you decide to go with large eggs instead, you may need to stop at around 4 to 4 and a half eggs. And if you go with small eggs, you might need to add just over half an egg to get the right consistency.
Speaking of consistency, it’s really important that your dough comes out firm and dense. This will help give your donuts that signature coiled shape.
So, let’s talk about custard. Specifically, the custard for our Zeppole di San Giuseppe.
Now, when it comes to this custard, we want it to be a bit thicker than your usual creme patissiere. Why, you ask? Well, it’s all about that beautiful coiled shape that we want to achieve. You see, the custard will be shaped in a way that mirrors the buns on which it rests. And if the custard is too soft, it just won’t be able to hold that shape.
So, we need to make sure that our custard is up to the task! It should be nice and dense, able to be piped like buttercream. That way, we can create those beautiful, perfectly shaped Zeppole di San Giuseppe.
And finally, the cherry on top of our delicious Zeppole di San Giuseppe. Now, if you’re not in Italy, finding sour cherries in syrup might be a bit of a challenge. Trust me, I know the struggle!
But don’t worry, because there are other options. My mum used to use sour cherry jam (or marmellata di amarene, as we call it in Italy). It’s a little sweeter than the cherries in syrup, which made it more palatable for us kids. And the good news is, you can often find this jam in Italian delis, so it’s definitely worth checking out your local one.
One thing to keep in mind, though, is that you don’t want to use other types of berry jams. The magic of this pastry is in the contrast between the sweetness of the custard and the tartness of the cherries. So, we want to stick with that classic sour cherry flavour if at all possible.