In the mood for something sweet? Yes, yes, we know we’ve already talked about desserts, from tiramisu to that other tiramisu and cannoli, but since this particular topic is so popular among our readers…yes, we went there again. And we are pretty sure you will be mad that we didn’t bring this authentic Italian zeppole recipe to you sooner–we know this not because we have a crystal ball predicting the future, but because 1) Italian recipes never fail and 2) It’s really, really good.
So what exactly is zeppola? It’s typical Italian pastry consisting of a deep-fried dough ball. Basically, filled doughnuts you’ll fall in love with at first bite. This authentic Italian zeppole recipe is brought to you by St. Joseph. Wait, what?
These filled doughnuts are actually Biblical, deriving from an ancient tradition dating back to Roman times. Supposedly, after Joseph fled to Egypt with Mary and their baby Jesus, he started selling pastry to support the family. And it seemed that his doughnuts were such a hit, that Romans even gave them a moniker.
Thanks to this story, the San Giuseppe zeppole are the typical sweets of Father’s Day in Italy, when the life of Joseph is celebrated. As it tends to happen in Italian cuisine (and not only!), this authentic Italian zeppole recipe is also known to have different variations throughout the Italian regions, but one thing is for sure–you need to fry them in plenty of oil. And if you’re gasping at the oil part–hey, you can either 1) spoil yourself from time to time or 2) bake a lighter version. Whatever you choose, just make sure not to miss out on them.
The Versatile Zeppole
If you’ve tried Googling zeppole, you might become a little confused because you get images that don’t exactly look the same. So let us make some clarifications, shall we?
Much like other traditional dishes in Italy (many of them pastries), Authentic Italian zeppole have different variations all over the Italian peninsula. They can come in all shapes, sizes, and have all sorts of fillings and toppings. Yes, it can be one of the most confusing pastries in the whole of Italy.
The two most popular varieties are the ones made with pizza dough and the other one made of puff pastry dough, which is commonly called choux. However, kinds of authentic Italian zeppole can also depend on the holiday, feast, or celebration they are made for… or the region in which they are prepared.
Zeppole di San Giuseppe
Made with puff pastry commonly called choux, this zeppole is probably one of the most recognized one in the world. And it’s no wonder that people love these pastries because they look like veritable miniature artworks. Each pastry has a ridged dough base with a creamy yellow custard filling and topped with a single beautiful cherry, which can either be sweet or sour.
They are also called zeppole napoletane and sfincia, sfinge, or Bignè di S. Giuseppe in Rome.
Zeppole for San Gennaro
This is a popular street food during the Feast of San Gennaro, or Saint Januarius, which is celebrated every September 19. These authentic Italian zeppole are made with common pizza dough with ricotta that are shaped into balls, deep-fried, and then covered with refined sugar, confectioner’s sugar, or cinnamon sugar.
Zeppole for Carnevale
Much like zeppole for San Gennaro, zeppole for Carnevale are deep-fried dough. They can be shaped into balls or typical doughnuts and covered with refined sugar crystals. The dough balls are usually filled with pastry/custard cream.
Zeppole di Natale alla Sorrentina
As its name suggests, these are typically prepared during the Christmas holiday. They are deep-fried doughnuts much like other zeppole, only it is covered with colorful sprinkles (the same ones you use for those cuccidati) for that festive touch.
Out of all the types of zeppole, this is perhaps the most unique. How? Well, they are still savory deep-fried doughnuts, but with anchovies inside. Yep, you read that right… anchovies, which are small saltwater fishes. They can be shaped into balls or stretched and twisted.
Authentic Italian Zeppole Recipe
- 3 medium eggs
- 40 g 1/3 cup butter
- 70 g 5/8 cup sugar
- 1 grated lemon peel
- 250 ml 8.45 oz or 1 cup water
- 150 g 2/3 cup flour
- Fine salt as needed
FOR THE PASTRY CREAM
- 3 egg yolks
- 25 g 4 tbsp. flour (or cornstarch)
- 1/2 vanilla beans
- 75 g 1/3 cup sugar
- 250 ml 1 cup or 8.45 oz whole milk
TO FRY AND GARNISH
- 8 cherries in syrup
- Peanut oil as needed
- To prepare the Saint Joseph doughnuts, you need to create the pastry cream first. Heat the milk in a saucepan, adding a half vanilla bean, together with its seeds.
- Whisk the egg yolk and sugar in a bowl, then add the flour.
- Remove the vanilla bean from the milk using pliers, then pour the warm milk over the egg yolk mix, then start whisking.
- Put the mixture back on the stove and stir it constantly, until the cream has thickened.
- Transfer the custard to a bowl and let it cool keeping it covered with a foil.
- For the dough, place the butter cut into small pieces in a thick-bottomed saucepan, and pour the water. Add salt and bring slowly to a boil, stirring with a wooden spoon.
- As soon as the butter has melted and the water starts to boil, remove the saucepan from heat and pour flour inside, using a sifter.
- Put the saucepan back on the stove and start mixing with a whisk, then continue stirring with a wooden spoon, to obtain a compact ball.
- Keep rolling the mixture until you see a white patina formed on the bottom of the saucepan (it will take around 10 minutes).
- Turn off the heat and add the sugar, stir well to incorporate it into the mixture, then pour the mixture into a bowl and let it cool.
- Once cooled, transfer the dough in a bowl and add the grated lemon peel and the eggs, one at a time, adding the next egg only when the former is fully absorbed.
- Eventually, you will get a smooth and homogeneous composition. Transfer it to a pastry bag with a starry nozzle.
- Cut 8 square sheet pans of about 8 cm (3.14 inches) and squeeze over each of them a dough disk, in a spiral, with a 5 cm diameter (1.96 inches).
- On the outer edge of each disk. overlay an extra dough "ring", so that you create something resembling a ball with two layers.
- Repeat the process for the rest of the 7 doughnuts or so, until the mixture is finished.
- In a deep saucepan, place the oil to fry, at a temperature between 160 °C and 170 °C (350-375 F). Don't let the oil boil, as you need to fry the doughnuts gently, turning them upside down several times, so that they are fried evenly.
- When the oil has reached the ideal temperature, immerse no more than 1-2 doughnuts, with the parchment paper you placed them on, as it will peel off by itself after a few seconds and you can remove them from the oil with kitchen pliers.
- Stir the doughnuts several times in hot oil until golden brown, then drain them with a skimmer. Use towels to remove the excess oil.
- When you have fried all the doughnuts, squeeze the custard in a pastry bag with a starry nozzle right at the center of the doughnuts.
- Garnish them with cherry syrup, or a candied cherry on top of the cream.
Transfer them on a plate and enjoy the Zeppole di San Giuseppe!
The St. Joseph fried doughnuts should be eaten fresh, so that you can enjoy them hot and crispy. Don't store them for more than 2 days in the refrigerator. Try to avoid freezing them. Do not exceed 170 °C (375 F) when frying or the doughnuts will not grow, but stay deflated and raw inside. You can sprinkle them with icing sugar.