March 19 (today) is the feast day of St. Joseph, and Italians everywhere are celebrating the arrival of Zeppole di San Giuseppe, a pastry treat of fried dough served on this occasion with a lush and creamy custard filling.
I first made Zeppole di San Giuseppe on this day last year when my brother-in-law, Emanuele, was visiting from Toronto. Emanuele and my husband, Tony, grew up in Etobicoke, Ontario, just a block or so away from the famed Italian deli and pastry shop, Sanremo Bakery.
The month of March is considered Zeppole season at Sanremo Bakery and their gorgeous, deep-fried pastries inspired us to attempt a copycat version at home, in honor of Emanuele’s visit.
Zeppole are made with a choux pastry dough similiar to a cream puff, but they are utterly transformed through the deep-frying process into a doughnut-like pastry that is light and airy with a wonderfully crisp exterior.
None of us had ever made zeppole before, and, to experiment we also baked a batch of zeppole in the oven, just to test the difference between the two versions. While they didn’t have the signature doughnut-crispiness as those that were fried, they were still delicious and definitely easier to make.
Very little sugar is used to make the pastry, as there is ample sweetness provided by the luscious vanilla custard filling, which is rich and creamy with just a hint of lemon. The custard can be made a day or two in advance and refrigerated until ready to serve. In addition to the traditional custard, you could also fill the zeppole with chocolate mousse or whipped cream flavored with mashed berries or lemon curd.
While March 19 might be the zenith of zeppole season, these sweet Italian treats can be enjoyed any day of the year. Salut!
Zeppole di San Giuseppe
3 large egg yolks
¼ cup sugar
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 ¼ cups whole or 2% milk
1 or 2 strips of lemon zest (use a vegetable peeler to remove just the peel and none of the bitter white pith)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup heavy whipping cream
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
In a medium-sized bowl, use a whisk to mix the sugar and egg yolks until well combined. Sift the flour and cornstarch together and whisk into the egg mixture until a smooth paste is formed, about 2 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a saucepan over medium heat, cook the milk and lemon zest just until boiling. As soon as the milk begins to foam up, remove from the heat. Discard the lemon zest.
Add a ¼ cup of the milk into the egg mixture, whisking constantly to prevent the eggs from curdling. Once mixed in, slowly add the remaining milk, whisking constantly. If lumps occur, pour the mixture through a strainer to remove them.
Pour the batter into a medium saucepan and cook over medium heat until boiling, whisking constantly. When it reaches a boil, continue to whisk constantly for 30 to 60 seconds more, until it thickens to a pudding-like consistency. Remove from the heat and immediately whisk in the vanilla extract and continue whisking until custard appears smooth and velvety.
Pour into a clean bowl and place a piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the custard to prevent a skin from forming. Cool to room temperature and refrigerate for up to 3 days. Give a good stir before serving to remove any lumps that may have formed.
For a lighter custard, fresh whipped cream may be folded into the custard before serving. Use a stand or handheld mixer with a whip attachment to whip the heavy cream, sugar and vanilla extract until soft peaks form. Gently fold half the whipped cream into the custard and add more until desired consistency is achieved.
For the Pastry:
1 cup all-purpose flour, sifted
1 teaspoon sugar (optional)
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup water
½ cup unsalted butter (one stick)
4 eggs, jumbo size for best results
In a small bowl, combine the flour, sugar and salt; set aside.
In a saucepan over medium heat, bring the water and butter to a rolling boil, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat to low and vigorously stir in the flour mixture until the dough separates from the pan and forms into a ball, about one minute. Remove from heat.
Use an electric mixer or wooden spoon to stir dough for 1 to 2 minutes to release some of the heat before adding the eggs. and allow dough to cool for 2 to 3 minutes.
Use an electric mixer or wooden spoon to vigorously beat in the eggs, one at a time, until the batter becomes smooth and velvety and falls from the beater/spoon in thick ribbons.
For an elegant presentation, use a piping bag fitted with a large star tip to create nests by piping the dough onto parchment paper (if frying, pre-cut the paper into 4-inch squares). Start with a round of dough in the center, then pipe widely around that circle once, and then add overlap that layer with a slightly smaller circle. If baking, place each nest 2 inches apart.
Alternatively, you may use an ice cream scoop or spoon to drop the dough in 2-inch mounds, spaced 2 inches apart.
To deep fry:
Fill a large pot with 3 to 4 inches of canola or vegetable oil and set burner temperature to medium high. Use a deep fry/candy thermometer to bring the oil to 375 degrees. Keep the oil at a steady 375 degrees for at least 3 to 4 minutes before dropping in the zeppola, adjusting the heat setting as needed.
Drop each zeppola into the hot oil with the parchment paper, about 3 at a time. Remove and discard the paper once it separates after a minute or two.
Fry the zeppole, flipping from top to bottom every minute or so, until they are golden brown all over. Remove to a wire cooling rack and cool completely.
To bake in the oven:
Before making the dough, line a baking sheet with parchment paper and preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Bake at 400 degrees 35 to 40 minutes, or until the puffs are golden brown and dry to the touch. Let puffs cool on sheet for 5 minutes, then transfer them to a wire cooling rack and cool completely.
To Serve: Once the zeppole are completely cool, use a serrated knife to gently cut in half, then your hands to remove the filaments of soft dough. Fill with custard, flavored whipped cream or chocolate mousse and replace tops.
Dust the top of each zeppola generously with powdered sugar. Pipe or spoon a dollop of the filling on the center of each top and garnish with cherries or fresh fruit.
To store: Store in airtight container in the refrigerator for 2 days.