with the Italian Father's Day approaching (19th of March), I cannot help but thinking of a delicious treat, typical from the city where I come from: the zeppola di San Giuseppe. As you may have noticed, it is actually now on sale in our sweet menu and Italians are in love with them!
That's why I thought it might be interesting to tell you a things or two about this mouth watering Italian delight!
A fried cream puff (sort of) filled with delicious pastry cream (similar to custard), on top of which there is a cherry (amarena). This is the famous fried “zeppola”, a typical Neapolitan pastry that is traditionally consumed on the 19th of March, on the occasion of St. Joseph (San Giuseppe) Day, i.e. Father's Day.
Although this dessert is also prepared in other regions of southern Italy, history attributes its paternity to the city of Naples.
The first official recipe is found, in fact, in the Treaty of Theoretical-Practical Cuisine of the well-known gastronome Ippolito Cavalcanti, Duke of Buonvicino, who, in 1837, wrote it in his book in the Neapolitan language.
The recipe of the classic zeppola, suggested by Cavalcanti is very simple and requires the use of a few ingredients: flour, water, a bit of anise liqueur, marsala or white wine, salt, sugar and oil for frying it.
Despite the first draft of the recipe in 1837, the zeppole had existed for centuries. As with many dishes of the Neapolitan culinary tradition, even the zeppola is linked to more than one legend.
The first legend, of Christian origin, would trace the birth of the zeppole to the escape of the Holy Family in Egypt. It is said that St. Joseph, to take care of Mary and Jesus, had to work as a carpenter and as a fryer/pancake hawker. It would seem that in Naples, out of devotion to the Saint, at a certain point the job of the "zeppolaro di strada" (street food vendor) developed. This ancient artisanal job existed until a few years ago: in the streets of the historic center of Naples, it was easy to meet them with their banquets placed in front of the shops where they used to sell the freshly fried zeppole (d-e-l-i-c-i-o-u-s)!!
Goethe described the art of these artisans, when visiting Naples at the end of 1700: "Today was also the feast of St. Joseph, patron of all the “frittaroli” i.e. sellers of fried zeppole... On the thresholds of houses, large pans were placed on improvised hearths. An apprentice worked the dough, another one manipulated and shaped them as donuts that were thrown into the boiling oil, a third one, near the pan, removed the cooked ones from the hot oil with a small skewer and then passed them to a fourth servant who offered them to people passing by...".
A second legend, however, would take us away from Naples to bring us to Rome, during the celebrations of the "Liberalia" (parties organized by the Romans in honor of the gods of wine and wheat). During these feasts, which were celebrated on March 17th to pay homage to Bacchus and Silenus (his preceptor and bacchanal companion), Romans would drink litres of wine and ambrosia accompanied by wheat fritters, cooked in boiling lard.
With the rise of the Emperor Theodosius II, who forbade any pagan worship, the Liberalia were no longer celebrated. But it is probable that over time they were assimilated by the Catholicism that set two days later the feast of St. Joseph (which became Father’s Day in 1968). The zeppole that today bear the name of the Saint are nothing else than the descendants of the ancient Roman fritters.
The shape of the "Zeppola"
Originally, the zeppola looked very different from the modern one. Who created, then, the shape that we all know today? Although it is not yet possible to affirm this with certainty, it seems that the nuns of the Splendore and the Croce di Lucca or the nuns of San Basilio of the Monastery of San Gregorio Armeno, in 1700, were the ones who gave to the zeppola the aspect it has nowadays.
Others, however, believe that the current recipe/shape of the zeppola is a work of Pintauro (the pastry chef who invented the renowned sfogliatella) who, revisiting the ancient Roman fritters and inspired by Cavalcanti, enriched the dough with eggs, lard and aromas and then fried them twice, first in boiling oil and then in melted lard.
The zeppola di San Giuseppe, therefore, was born as a fried treat even if today there are "light" and less caloric versions, like the baked ones (and this is the version we sell on our e-shop).
Well, I do hope you are excited as I am about these simple but absolutely delicious pastries - and if so, you know where to find them!
Because you know, you can't buy happiness, but you can buy a cake... And it's kinda the same thing!