Zeppole di San Giuseppe (St. Joseph's Day cake)


By now you should know that food is a very serious matter in Italy – and possibly even more serious when it comes to desserts and treats. Each holiday has its typical sweet, and so each region. If you want to have fun at the back of your Italian friends, just ask them which holiday sweet is the best, and watch them fight for days on end about the topic.
Sometimes the situation is even more complicated. Take the zeppole di San Giuseppe conundrum, for example. The name cannot be translated into English, and even the ‘San Giuseppe’ (Saint Joseph) part is a source of controversy – but we’ll get to it in a minute. The first thing you need to know about this treat, in fact, is that they are a typical carnevale speciality everywhere in Italy… except in the South, where they are made for Father’s day.

That’s the San Giuseppe connection, since Joseph is the saint patron of March 19th, Father’s day. But hold your horses, as people from the Campania region (where Naples is) will swear the name actually refers to the village of San Giuseppe Vesuviano, right under Mount Vesuvius. Whose explanation is the right one?
The answer can be found in a 1837 cookbook where the recipe seems to have originated. It flatly denies the village connection, since the sweet is attributed to “the nuns near here”. It goes without saying that people have been fighting over which nunnery invented the zeppole for almost two centuries now.
So what are these zeppole already? Of course there is no one single answer to that. In their basic form they are a form of beignet pastry filled with custard – but then again there are two very different types of zeppola (this is the singular form) depending on how it is cooked, fried or baked. While the latter is more common today, the original recipe did call for frying the pastry. In lard. Twice. You can imagine how digestible it can be.

Then again, Southern Italy offers many different types of zeppole di San Giuseppe. Extra-large, mini-sized, salted, sweet, filled, plain, covered in honey, sugar-coated and more. It all really boils down to regional preferences, but remember what we said about Italians fighting over their preferred recipe.
The somewhat official zeppola, however, is a lemon-flavored donut with a custard-filled center and a syruped black cherry on top. If you want to go for tradition, look for them on the streets of Naples in mid-March. The frittellari (deep-friers) carts will make one for you on the spot – and you will only need to run a marathon or two to burn off the calories.