Zeppoles are a traditional Italian pastry served on March 19th, St Joseph’s Day. St. Joseph is the foster-father of Baby Jesus. Many Italian homes, churches, and community centers celebrate St. Joseph’s Day with a wonderful tradition of setting out food for the homeless and hungry. Legend tells of a great famine that struck Sicily, and the villagers prayed to St Joseph for help. Their prayers were answered and they celebrated with a thanksgiving feast in his honor. The spirit of St. Joseph’s Day is about giving and sharing.
Generally St. Joseph’s Day is a meatless holiday. Some traditional foods that might be served at a St. Joseph’s Day table include Pasta with Buttered Breadcrumbs (looks like carpenter’s sawdust to honor St. Joseph the Carpenter), Sicilian Eggplant Pasta, fish such as Shrimp Scampi, calamari and sardines, Fava Bean or Minestrone soup, and Stuffed or Grilled Artichokes. Desserts include amazing Italian pastries such as Zeppoles, Cannoli and my favorite cookies, Cuccidati, a Sicilian fig and nut filled cookie. This year for St. Joseph’s Day I plan to celebrate it with homemade Baked Zeppoles with Vanilla Custard and share it with loved ones.
Zeppole is a pastry shaped like a donut, fried or baked, and filled with a sweet pastry creme. Garnish is usually a dusting of powdered sugar and a maraschino cherry. Honestly, when I was growing up we mostly bought these at the bakery. By this year I want to make them from scratch. The recipe I have chosen is based on a classic Pate Choux pastry dough, the same dough used for eclairs and cream puffs. The dough will be baked instead of fried. Some recipes will par bake the Zeppole and finish with a quick fry. I decided to keep it simple. I also made a homemade Vanilla Egg Custard from scratch that turned out fabulous.
There are several tips I can share in the step-by-step guide to making Baked Zeppoles:
First trace circles on parchment paper for consistent sizing, about 3 inches in diameter. I learned this trick when making Macarons and it is a good one.
An important part of making pate choux dough is to ensure the temperature of the hot flour/butter mixture has cooled to under 165 degrees before the eggs are added. To speed up the cooling process I placed an ice pack under the bowl of my Kitchenaid and let the dough mix for a few minutes. It cooled quickly.
Use a pastry bag with a long star tip or Wilton 1M tip for easiest piping. Use a wet finger to smooth out the pointy ends (you can see some here). Leaving a hole in the center is optional for Zeppole.
Bake at 425 degrees until puffed and golden. The inside will be hollow from the steam created during cooking.
Pipe the Vanilla Custard Filling into the center of the Zeppole or cut them in half and pipe between the layers. One tip to simplify the recipe is to use a standard vanilla box pudding for the filling. You could also just fill the cavity with whipped cream out of a can too.
Dust with powdered sugar and garnish with a maraschino cherry. You can find Luxardo Maraschino Cherries at many specialty stores on buy them online at Amazon. They are the soaked in a rich syrup and the best!
Italian Zeppoles with Vanilla Egg Custard for St Joseph's Day
Vanilla Egg Custard Filling
- 3 cups Half & Half whole milk and cream
- 8 large egg yolks let eggs come to room temperature before cooking
- 1/2 cup superfine sugar
- 1/4 cup cornstarch
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon butter softened to room temperature
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 whole vanilla seed pod
Pate Choux Pastry Dough
- 1 cup water or milk
- ½ cup 1 stick butter, cut in 4 pieces
- ½ tsp salt
- 1 cup bread flour
- 5 large eggs
- 10 sweet maraschino cherries drained
- 1/4 cup powdered sugar
Directions for Vanilla Egg Custard Filling
Cook’s Note: It is best to make the custard the day before and let chill/set overnight.
Cook’s Note: Recommend freeze the egg whites for future use. Place egg white from one egg in a clean ice cube tray. Cover and freeze. Pop frozen egg white cubes out of tray and store in a freezer ziploc bag. Let egg white come to a full thaw in fridge before use. They will yield full volume.
Heat milk in a saucepan over medium heat until very hot. Watch closely and do not let it boil.
In the meantime, using an electric hand beater, whisk together yolks, sugar, cornstarch, and salt in a large glass bowl (or other heatproof-type of bowl) until smooth
Add 1 cup hot milk to yolk mixture in a stream, whisking by hand or by electric beater to incorporate.
Repeat with the rest of the hot milk, whisking constantly. Transfer mixture to saucepan and cook over moderately low heat, stirring constantly, until thickened and registers 160°F on thermometer, or approximately 6 to 10 minutes. (Do not go over over 165 degrees F or the eggs will start to scramble). Add more half & half if the custard is too thick. Watch closely and do not let it boil. Remove pan from stove and let the custard cool for 10 minutes.
Using a ladle, transfer the custard, one ladle at a time, through a fine-mesh sieve into a clean bowl. Use the back of the ladle or a spatula to push it through as needed. Repeat until all custard is strained.
Stir in butter and vanilla extract. Split the vanilla pod with a sharp knife and scrape the seeds into the custard. Stirr until the vanilla seeds are evenly mixed in the custard.
Cover the surface of the custard with wax paper and chill in the refrigerator until cold and thickened, at least 3 hours. The custard is best chilled overnight in the fridge.
For Pate Choux Zeppole
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. With a pencil, trace 10 3-inch circles onto parchment paper. Turn the parchment over. The stencil will show through.
Combine water (or milk), butter and salt in a large saucepan on the stovetop over medium high heat. Bring to a rolling boil, whisking several times to combine the butter and milk.
When boiling, add flour all at one time, and stir with a stiff spoon. Keep stirring until the dough forms a ball and the looks smooth. Transfer the dough to a Kitchenaid bowl.
WIth the paddle, mix the dough to cool until it reaches under 140 degrees. Note: eggs will scramble at 165 degrees so knowing the temperature is important. Use a digital thermometer to check the temperature. To speed up the cooling process, slide an ice pack underneath the Kitchenaid bowl.
When the temperature is 140 degrees or less, add one egg at a time, fully incorporating the egg before adding the next. Continue mixing until the dough is thick and smooth, and soft peaks form.
Transfer the pate choux dough to a pastry bag fitted with a large open star border tip or a Wilton 1M. Pipe out Zeppoles following the stencils on parchment paper. Optional to shape like a donut or giant cream puff. If any pointy tips are created from the piping, pat down with a wet finger.
Bake for 20 minutes or until puffed up and golden.
Remove the Zeppole from the oven and let cool on a wire rack. The steam from the center will escape and the inside will dry out.
Fill another pastry bag fitted with a large star tip with the cold Vanilla Egg Custard.
If shaped like cream puffs: With a small knife cut a cross in the bottom of the Zeppole. Insert the tip into cross mark and pipe the custard to fill the hollow center of each one.
If shaped like donuts: When the zeppole have cooled completely, cut them in half. Generously pipe the filling on the cut half. Cover with the top half.
Garnish the Zeppole with a dusting of powdered sugar, pipe one dollop of filling on top and garnish top with a maraschino cherry.
Unfilled Zeppoles can be stored in an airtight container in the fridge for a few days or frozen for later use.