It’s March, and if you’re Italian, you know St. Joseph’s Day is right around the corner. Delicious zeppole is the traditional St. Joseph’s day treat. It is a fried "pate a choux" doughnut topped with vanilla pastry cream and amarena cherries. The doughnut is buttery and airy, and when topped with the sweet vanilla cream and tangy fruit, it is truly a piece of heaven. 

It’s March, and if you’re Italian, you know St. Joseph’s Day is right around the corner.

Delicious zeppole is the traditional St. Joseph’s day treat. It is a fried "pate a choux" doughnut topped with vanilla pastry cream and amarena cherries. The doughnut is buttery and airy, and when topped with the sweet vanilla cream and tangy fruit, it is truly a piece of heaven. 

In ancient Rome, March was a time to celebrate the country’s abundant agriculture. It was tradition for Romans to celebrate by frying savory doughnuts made with the wheat grown in the land and drinking wine made with their grapes.

In 1837, Italian pastry chef Ippolito Cavalanti of Naples decided to incorporate the fried doughnut tradition into a dessert for Saint Joseph’s Day on March 19. He created this pastry-cream-topped doughnut now known as zeppole. 

Zeppole are made with a dough containing no leavening agents; instead it is high in moisture, which allows it to rise naturally and puff up. Pate a choux dough is used in many desserts, such as profiteroles, éclairs and a traditional French dessert called gâteau St. Honoré. 

When I was young, I loved the tradition of making zeppole with my mom. Thinking back to making the sticky pate a choux batter and stirring the hot cream over the stove are some of my favorite memories with her.

My mom has an antique copper piping utensil that she bought in an outdoor market in Italy that she only used to pipe the zeppole into the hot frying oil. Every year, when she took it out to clean and prepare it for St. Joseph’s day, I used to get so excited I could already smell the fried doughnuts in the air.

The classic zeppole are topped with amarena cherries, which are dark cherries soaked in syrup. Unfortunately, these cherries are hard to find in America, so if you cannot find them, you may substitute with maraschino cherries. 

However, my favorite way is how my mother serves them, with little dollops of strawberry preserve. I would love to share with you this traditional Italian favorite that my mom has passed down to me. It has given me many great memories through the years. Enjoy!

Pate a choux

4 ounces butter
3 whole eggs
8 ounces milk
Pinch of salt
Pinch of sugar
5 ounces all-purpose flour
¼ ounce pure vanilla extract

Take butter, milk, sugar and salt and place in a pot. Bring to a boil.

Add the flour over the stove and stir quickly to make sure you do not get any lumps. Cook for one minute, stirring continuously. 

Take batter and place in a mixer bowl with a paddle attachment. Put on lowest speed and let the dough cool while running.

When dough is cool, add eggs one at a time until well-incorporated.

At this time the dough is ready and the doughnuts may either be fried or baked if preferred that way.

Frying the doughnuts:

Preheat oil to 350 degrees.

Place the dough in a piping bag. 

Pipe a doughnut on the base of a metal spatula. Then slowly submerge the metal spatula into the oil until the doughnut floats off. Repeat.

Fry on each side until golden brown. Then place on a paper-towel-lined plate to absorb the excess oil.

Baking the doughnuts:

Preheat the oven to 400 F.

Pipe pate a choux in doughnut forms spacing them out 1 inch apart on a parchment-lined baking sheet that has been sprayed with baking spray. Bake in oven for about 20 to 25 minutes or when golden brown

Vanilla pastry cream

1 pound half and half
4 ounces sugar
1 ounce cornstarch
¼ ounce flour
4 egg yolks
1 egg whole
½ ounce vanilla
1 ½ ounces butter

Place sugar, cornstarch, and flour in a bowl and stir to combine then add a little cold half and half to hydrate. Whisk this until smooth.

Add yolks and egg to the mixture and set aside.

Bring cream to a boil being careful because it may boil over.

Whisk hot cream into the egg and sugar mixture slowly, being careful not to curdle the eggs.
Place mixture back into pot and back to the stove on medium to low heat to thicken.

Stir this mixture continually using a rubber spatula making sure to scrape all surface area in the pot.

When it comes to a boil, take off heat, pour cream in a clean bowl and cover with plastic wrap making sure the plastic is touching the cream so a skin does not occur. Place in refrigerator to cool completely.

To assemble the zeppole, pipe or spoon cooled pastry cream over the tops of the doughnuts and top with cherries or dollops of your favorite preserve.

Chef Angela D’Urso co-owns Sweet Creations, 609 Davol St., Fall River, Mass., with her husband, Paolo. For more information, see www.scdesserts.com.