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Impress your guests with sweet Zeppole di San Giuseppe pastry

Emanuele, Gio and Tony Nasello enjoy the tradition of St. Joseph Zeppole. David Samson / Forum News Service1 / 4
Use a piping bag with a large star tip to pipe the batter into nests. David Samson / Forum News Service2 / 4
Zeppole di san Giuseppe filled with traditional custard, chocolate mousse or raspberry cream. David Samson / Forum News Service3 / 4
Deep fry between 375-400 degrees until golden brown. David Samson / Forum News Service4 / 4

FARGO — Most people dream of spending their March break in warm and sunny places, like Florida, Arizona, Mexico or the Caribbean. But not Tony's older brother Emanuele, a teacher at Lakeshore Collegiate Institute in Toronto, Canada.

For as long as we can remember, Emanuele's spring break dream has been to spend it with us, here in Fargo. Last week, that dream finally became a reality.

In true Sicilian fashion, it was a celebration of family, tradition and, of course, food. Early into his visit, Emanuele and Tony were talking about their old neighborhood in Etobicoke, where their mother, Marianna, still lives. Etobicoke is a vibrant, multicultural community located in the western part of Toronto, with a history steeped in Italian heritage that is still represented today by businesses like the famous Sanremo Bakery on Royal York Road.

Just before coming to Fargo, Emanuele visited Marianna and was treated to one of Sanremo's seasonal specialties, Zeppole (zep-po-leh) di San Giuseppe. The tradition of this pastry dates to the early nineteenth century, when a baker in Naples decided to mark the feast of St. Joseph (March 19) with a special pastry.

While a standard zeppola (singular) is often simply a ball of fried pastry dough dusted with powdered sugar, like a beignet, Zeppole di San Giuseppe are impressive, donut-sized pastries filled with a sweet custard cream and traditionally topped with a syrupy Amarena cherry.

Today, Italian bakeries throughout Italy and North America continue this tradition and smartly create a zeppola-frenzy by offering the confection for a limited time, often ending on or around March 19.

Emanuele talked about these cream-filled pastries with such fondness and emotion that it was clear there was more to this story than just pastry and cream.

"As a young child, I was slightly intimidated by zeppole," Emanuel recounted. "Surrounded by the halo of sacred ritual, they looked bold and beautiful, decadent and delicious. Was I worthy?" There was only one way to answer his question — we had to make Zeppole di San Giuseppe ourselves.

I spent the rest of the week researching everything I could to ensure that our results would live up to Emanuele's expectations, and I was delighted to find that the dough for the pastry is nothing more than a simple choux pastry, exactly like a cream puff.

I also discovered that, while deep frying is the traditional method for making zeppole, they can also be baked in the oven. For our experiment, we made them both fried and baked with great results.

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.

We made our Zeppole di San Giuseppe on the day before Emanuele's departure, and I cannot think of a better way to commemorate his visit than by sharing this Italian tradition together. Worthy, indeed. Alla famiglia!

Zeppole di San Giuseppe

Makes about 10 zeppole

For the filling

3 large egg yolks

¼ cup sugar

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons cornstarch

1¼ cups whole or 2 percent 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

Optional

1 cup heavy whipping cream

2 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Directions

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

Directions

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. 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.

Store in airtight container in the refrigerator for 2 days.

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