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While Irish Americans have St. Patrick's Day, Italian Americans celebrate their own feast day, St. Joseph's Day, just two days later on March 19th. If you're lucky enough to grow up both Irish and Italian, that means a couple days of nearly back-to-back feasting smack in the middle of the austerity of Lent. In honor of my grandmother, we would have Irish soda bread on St. Patrick's Day, and, for my grandfather, zeppole di San Giuseppe on St. Joseph's day. Suffice it to say that the Italians win at dessert-time feasting hands down.
Zeppole di San Giuseppe are airy and eggy fried pastries— essentially the Italian version of a pâte à choux filled with a rich pastry cream. Unlike their ball-shaped cousins which are popular at street fairs, Zeppole di San Giuseppe are lighter and less doughy. And with Zeppole di San Giuseppe it's really all about the filling.
Different Italian American communities have varying traditions. In New York, where there's a large Sicilian population, zeppole are often referred to as sfinge and they commonly come stuffed with either vanilla pastry cream or a cannoli filling. In the chiefly Neapolitan communities surrounding New Haven, Connecticut, the ricotta filling is less common and vanilla and chocolate zeppole are kings.
New Haveners take their zeppole very seriously. Though the once thriving Italian community around Wooster Square may have dispersed to the surrounding suburbs, come St. Joseph's Day, locals flock back to the remaining old school bakeries: Lucibello's, Libby's, and Rocco's, and endure long lines for their prized pastries. Every year my dad would pick up a box of chocolate zeppole with maybe a token vanilla or two, but the chocolates were always the first to go.
For years I've searched in vain for a bakery in New York that sells chocolate-filled zeppole. Emboldened by recent homemade doughnut success, I decided to take on one of the most significant desserts of my childhood. I've since discovered that preparing zeppole at home is actually fairly simple— it just requires preparation and time. The end results are so lovely, so delicious, and so impressive—especially if you make them for Italian friends—that this is definitely a worthwhile treat to add to your dessert arsenal.
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