St. Joseph’s Day (la festa di San Giuseppe) is a big deal in my family. For starters, saints’ feast days are taken much more seriously in Italian culture than they are here (where they’re not really acknowledged outside of St. Patrick’s Day–oh, today!). We receive cards and phone calls on our namesake’s feast day as if it’s our birthday. Some people with names like Rosalia, Anthony or Antonio, and Joseph or Giuseppe really have it made. In Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, a stretch of several blocks is closed off for a week to celebrate Saint Rosalia. Saint Anthony gets a festival in Astoria, Queens that my grandparents never miss. And Saint Joseph, well, he gets zeppole.
Before I get to the zeppole, let me explain the fuss over St. Joseph’s Day, which is this Saturday, March 19. My mother’s side of our family (I’m only talking about parents, siblings, nieces, and nephews) has eleven Josephs. It always seemed like more, but now that I really count, it’s only eleven. Five of them even have the exact same first and last name (Joseph [or Giuseppe] Casa).
We got into this mess because of the Italian naming tradition that some families still follow (although it’s dying out). Your first-born son is named after his father’s father. Your second-born son is named after his mother’s father. Same with the girls and their respective grandmothers.
My mom’s father was Giuseppe. He and my grandmother had ten kids. One passed away very young, one had only girls, and one didn’t have kids. The other seven all had boys, and they all named them Joseph (or Giuseppe). Then, because we didn’t have enough of them, my cousin Cristine and I married Josephs. And my cousin Antonietta (from that all-girl family) named her son Giuseppe. Then, of course, there’s the original Giuseppe—our grandfather. That makes eleven. Do you follow?
So in honor of the zillion Joes in my life, I made the pastry dedicated to their feast day: zeppole. I don’t know why we eat these on St. Joseph’s Day (there are plenty of explanations online if you’re interested, like this one). My mom said that when she was growing up in Sicily they only made these for Christmas. She’d only heard of zeppole for St. Joseph’s Day when they moved to Brooklyn. A huge feast on St. Joseph’s Day was always the norm, though. Anyone who felt St. Joseph had helped them through a hard time that year hosted an elaborate meal and opened their door to anyone who’d like to eat with them—from family to the needy.
If you Google “zeppole” you’ll find two different pastries: the fritters I made (also called sfinci in Sicily) and a more elaborate version filled with pastry or ricotta cream. I was all ready to roll with a fancy recipe, until I called my grandma, Nonna Venera. She’s my dad’s mom—not the grandma involved with all the Joes. Nonna Venera has been making sfinci for decades, and to my surprise, only uses five ingredients: flour, eggs, water, salt, and yeast.
I should have known: Just when you think something delicious has to be painstaking and time-consuming, you’re humbled by simplicity. So I tossed the fussy recipes and did what Nonna Venera said.
The danger in getting a recipe from your grandma is that they’re never forthright with the measurements. She did specify using two eggs. But when I asked how much flour, she said, “Oh, as much as you want. For as many as you want to make. One cup, two cups, four cups. Whatever you want.” Hmph.
“And Nonna, how much water should I use?”
“A good amount,” she says. “So the dough is very soft.” Oh.
“What about the yeast?”
“Yes, put that in. Don’t forget. Enough to make it rise. Don’t put sugar, but remember the salt.” Eeek.
With that, I threw something together that actually worked. She was right—you can really use whatever you want. Here are my measurements and instructions, which turned out perfectly:
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 large eggs
2 cups warm water
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
1 teaspoon saltBeat the eggs, then mix in the flour. Dissolve the yeast in 1 cup of warm water and add to the flour mixture. Add salt. Continue mixing and adding water until you have a very soft dough. I got mine to the consistency of warm oatmeal and it worked perfectly. I set the dough aside to rise, but nothing happened. I thought I’d messed things up until they hit the oil and poof! They puffed right up.
Heat vegetable oil in a deep fryer or medium sauce pan. Drop spoonfuls of dough into the oil, turning them once to make them brown on all sides.
Remove from the oil and drain on paper towels. Sprinkle generously with powdered sugar and eat immediately or store in a paper bag.