Zeppole di San Giuseppe are the traditional pastries made in Italy for St. Joseph’s Day.
They are delicious Italian doughnuts made of soft choux pastry, traditionally fried then filled with pastry cream and finally topped with wild black cherries.
Zeppole are a great Italian dessert, typical of the Campania region. On March 19, they are popular in pastry shops not only in Naples, but all over Italy, with some small differences from region to region. Differences that may concern the type of cream or the cooking method, as we will see more over.
Perfect for celebrating St. Joseph’s Day – which in Italy is Father’s Day – according to Italian tradition, but also for Carnival or simply as a fantastic dessert.
Follow the recipe for Zeppole di San Giuseppe, the authentic Italian pastry of St. Joseph’s Day. We’ll give you tips and tricks on how to make the best Zeppole di San Giuseppe at home, just like in the best pastry shops in Naples!
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Zeppole di San Giuseppe Recipe
- Prep Time: 40 min
- Cook Time: 30 min
- Servings: 6 Zeppole
For 6 Zeppole (Made with Choux Pastry)
- 3 medium whole eggs + 1 egg yolk. IMPORTANT: The total weight of the eggs – without the shell – must be 170 g (6 oz).
- 60 g (~4 tablespoons or 1/2 stick) of unsulted butter
- 250 ml (1 cup) of water
- 150 g (~1 1/4 cups) of all purpose flour
- 1/6 teaspoon of fine salt
For 350 g (1 1/2 cups) of Crema Pasticcera (Italian Pastry Cream)
- 2 medium egg yolks
- 50 g (4 tablespoons) of granulated sugar
- 15 g (~2 tablespoons) of all purpose flour
- 35 g (3 3/4 tablespoons) of corn starch
- 250 ml (1 cup) of whole fresh milk
- 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla bean or zest of half lemon
Frying and Decoration
- 6 black cherries in syrup. Try Amarena Fabbri, pitted wild cherries in syrup
- icing sugar
- 1 liter (~4 cups) of oil for frying
Kitchen Tools and Equipment
To make St. Joseph’s zeppole, you will need some very common, yet essential, kitchen tools.
First of all, you will need a frying pot that is fairly tall so that you can fry your zeppole easily. Have a look at this stainless steel fryer pot with thermometer and oil draining rack. Very useful!
The temperature of the oil should not exceed 170°C/180°C (338°F / 356°F). So a kitchen thermometer is absolutely necessary.
A pastry bag is essential. Buy one that has a range of decorating tips useful for all types of pastry.
Finally, a sieve for dusting icing sugar.
To make zeppole di San Giuseppe, it’s better to start by preparing the pastry cream. So, while the cream is cooling, you can prepare the dough for the zeppole.
How to Make Italian Pastry Cream for Decorations (Not Runny!)
Step 1) – Heat the milk in a saucepan with the vanilla or lemon zest, depending on your preference. Bring to a near boil.
While the milk is heating, in another saucepan, beat the egg yolks with the sugar and mix well.
Step 2) – Then add the two sifted flours and combine.
Step 3) – Now pour the hot milk slowly into the egg-sugar-flour mixture, stirring all the time.
Then place the saucepan over low heat. Whisk until the cream thickens (this will take about 3-4 minutes).
Step 4) – Pour the pastry cream into a bowl. Cover with cling film (in contact with the cream) and allow to cool completely, first at room temperature and then in the refrigerator.
How to Make Choux Pastry for Zeppole
Now you need to make choux pastry, a widely used preparation in pastry making. This is the dough to make zeppole.
Step 1) – Pour the water into a saucepan and add the chopped butter and fine salt.
Turn the heat to medium and stir with a wooden spoon until the butter is melted.
Step 2) – When the liquid begins to boil, add the flour and continue stirring.
You will get a very hard mixture that is hard to stir. Don’t worry, this is how it’s meant to be.
Step 3) – When the dough starts to pull away from the sides of the pot (after 1 or 2 minutes), remove from heat.
Transfer the mixture to a bowl and let it cool completely (TIP: To speed up cooling, you can spread the mixture in the bowl).
Step 4) – Meanwhile, in a separate bowl, whisk the 3 whole eggs with the yolk. The total amount of eggs should be about 170 g (6 oz).
Step 5) – When the butter and flour mixture is cold, add the eggs in stages. Pour in some of the eggs, mix and let it combine. Then add more and so on until you have used all the eggs.
At first it will be difficult to mix the eggs into the mixture because the dough has an almost solid consistency. It will take some patience to get a smooth consistency.
Eventually, the dough should be creamy and smooth, but still quite firm.
How to Make Zeppole di San Giuseppe
Step 1) – Place the choux pastry dough in a pastry bag. TIP: To make it easier to fill the pastry bag, we recommend placing it in a tall cylindrical container so that it stands upright and steady.
Use a star tip. There are several sizes available. Keep in mind that the bigger the hole in the tip, the more dough will come out.
On a sheet of baking paper, make circles about 6-7 cm (2 1/3 – 2 3/4 inches) in diameter, well spaced apart.
Make two or more rounds of overlapping choux pastry for each zeppole.
If you chose a small tip, you will need up to four rounds of dough. If the tip is large, you will only need two.
Step 2) – Now cut out squares of parchment paper around the zeppole.
You need the parchment paper to catch the zeppole and make them easier to place in the hot oil.
How to Fry Zeppole
Step 1) – In a high-sided frying pot, heat the frying oil to a temperature of 170°C/180°C (338°F / 356°F). Use a kitchen thermometer to check the temperature.
Using the parchment paper, carefully drop one – maximum two – zeppole at a time into the hot oil.
Step 2) – Remove the paper with tongs.
Fry the zeppole for about 2 minutes without turning them. Then turn them over and fry them on the other side. Continue cooking until they turn golden and increase in volume. A total of 4-5 minutes is enough.
Step 3) – When ready, drain the zeppole with a slotted spoon and place them on a tray lined with kitchen paper to remove the excess oil.
How to Fill and Decorate Zeppole
Step 1) – Transfer the warm zeppole to a serving dish and sprinkle with icing sugar.
Fill a pastry bag with the cooled pastry cream.
TIP: To make it easier to fill the pastry bag, we recommend placing it in a tall cylindrical container so that it stands upright and steady.
Step 3) – Fill the center and top of the zeppole with the pastry cream.
Finish each zeppole by placing one or more black cherries in syrup and a little of their syrup on top of the cream.
Your delicious Zeppole di San Giuseppe are ready!
How to Store Zeppole di San Giuseppe
Of course, to enjoy the zeppole to the fullest, we recommend eating them immediately or at the latest within 24 hours of frying.
In fact, over time, zeppole lose their fragrance and crispness, like all fried dough.
You can store unfilled St. Joseph’s zeppole for 3-4 days at room temperature in an airtight container.
The pastry cream can be stored in the refrigerator for 1-2 days.
Before serving, decorate the zeppole with the cream and cherries.
Do not freeze.
The authentic recipe for zeppole di San Giuseppe, as we have seen, calls for zeppole strictly fried in vegetable oil.
In recent years, however, other cooking methods that do not involve frying in oil have become popular, in order to have lighter and less caloric zeppole.
The first of these variations is baking: the recipe and the preparation method are exactly the same.
After putting the choux pastry into the pastry bag, line a baking sheet with parchment paper and form the zeppole. Bake in a preheated, ventilated oven at 200°C (392°F) on the lowest rack until golden brown, about 25 minutes.
At the end of 25 minutes, open the oven door slightly and let the zeppole bake for another 5 minutes to dry on the inside, then remove them from the oven.
Double Baked Zeppole
There is a cooking method that allows you to get fried Zeppole di San Giuseppe, but without any fat!
Light as clouds, thanks to the trick of baking them in the oven before frying them.
Bake the zeppole in a static oven preheated to 200°C (392°F) until they rise, which takes about 12 minutes. Then fry them.
This will compact the choux pastry and create an outer film that will prevent the zeppole from absorbing too much oil.
This method was developed by the famous Neapolitan pastry chef Salvatore de Riso and is also used in the famous historic Gran Caffè Gambrinus in Naples.
Zeppole di San Giuseppe: Some Variations
In the traditional recipe of Zeppole di San Giuseppe, the filling must include pastry cream topped with wild cherries. Of course, you can use whatever filling you prefer and experiment with new flavors.
We give you some ideas.
Zeppole with Tiramisu Cream
Fill and decorate the zeppole with a coffee mascarpone cream sprinkled with unsweetened cocoa powder.
Zeppole with Diplomat Cream
Or opt for Diplomat cream and decorate with fresh strawberries.
This version is more springlike and has a very fresh and delicate taste.
For chocolate lovers, the zeppole can be filled with chocolate pastry cream.
But it is also very interesting to make chocolate choux pastry and fill it with whipped cream for a delicious and beautiful black and white effect.
Sift together 120 g (1 cup) flour and 30 g (1/4 cup) unsweetened cocoa powder and follow the instructions.
Regional Variations of Zeppole
St. Joseph’s zeppole belong to the Neapolitan tradition, but are widespread and loved throughout Italy. In some regions we find some particular versions. Let’s have a look at some of them.
In Salento (PUGLIA) we find zeppole fried and baked, filled with the classic pastry cream and chocolate cream. They are often oval in shape.
In SICILY, zeppole have a more oriental note, with a rice flour-based dough and a coating of orange honey.
In some towns in CALABRIA, They make zeppole similar to the Neapolitan ones. The filling is made with ricotta cheese, sugar, cinnamon and lemon. The dough also includes potatoes.
Zeppole di San Giuseppe: The Origins
The origins of Zeppole di San Giuseppe are uncertain; the various hypotheses are a mixture of history and legend.
One thing is certain: the first recipe for Zeppole di San Giuseppe can be found in the Trattato di Cucina Teorico-Pratico, written by the restaurateur Ippolito Cavalcanti.
Written in 1837 in the Neapolitan dialect, Cavalcanti describes a simple dessert made with just a few ingredients: water, flour, salt, sugar, marsala, white wine or aniseed liqueur, and oil for frying.
Although the first written recipe dates back to 1800, we know that zeppole were known and appreciated for many centuries.
Let us take a look at the different stories that tell the origin of Zeppole di San Giuseppe.
The Escape of the Holy Family
According to this theory, zeppole were born during the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt.
St. Joseph, in order to support his family in the new country, is said to have started selling fritters in the streets.
Moreover, in honor of this event, there was already a tradition of street “zeppolari” in Naples in the 1700s: these artisans would fry and display freshly made zeppole in front of their shops, ready to be sold to passersby.
This theory would explain why this dessert is associated with celebrations in honor of St. Joseph.
The second theory traces the origin of zeppole to ancient Rome.
Around 500 B.C., the Romans celebrated the Liberalia, a feast in honor of Bacchus and Silenus, the gods of wine and grain, respectively.
This festival fell on March 17, a day dedicated to drinking wine and eating wheat fritters cooked in lard.
Although the pagan cult has disappeared over time, according to this hypothesis, zeppole would be the descendants of these ancient Roman fritters: the feast of St. Joseph, in fact, falls only two days after Liberalia.
The Rites of Agrarian Purification
The last theory concerns the agrarian purification rites typical of southern Italy.
On March 19, they celebrated the end of winter and the beginning of spring. Large bonfires were lit, around which people danced and prepared large quantities of fritters covered with honey.
The juxtaposition of zeppole with St. Joseph’s Day would therefore be purely coincidental, given the double celebration on March 19.
Origin of the Name Zeppole
1) – According to some, the name zeppole is derived from “zeppa”, which comes from the Latin word “cippus”. It refers to the small piece of wood used by carpenters to correct small dimensional and sliding defects in furniture.
In this case, the connection with St. Joseph, the carpenter par excellence, is obvious.
2) – Others believe that “zeppola” (singular: zeppola – plural: zeppole) derives from “serpula”, which means snake, because of the typical shape of the pastry, which resembles a snake turned upon itself.
3) – Another theory links the word zeppola to “saeptula”, from “saepio”, meaning belt: this word was in fact used as a generic term for round objects.
4) – The last hypothesis takes us back to Naples, where Zi’ Paolo (Zio Paolo=Uncle Paul), a Neapolitan fry cook, is identified as the inventor of the street zeppola. The name would be a tribute to this legendary master.