Saint Joseph Cream Puffs-Sfinci di San Giuseppe


March 19, la Festa di San Giuseppe (the Feast of San Joseph), is an important holiday celebrated by Roman Catholics throughout Italy.  In Sicily it’s customary to make certain dishes on a patron saint’s feast day to honor them.  Leave it to the Italians to venerate their saints with food dishes! Celebratory customs and the kinds of foods made vary from region to region, city to city, and town to town.  In Sicily, Saint Joseph Day is celebrated by eating maccu, a dish made of fava beans, and sfinici di San Giuseppe (St. Joseph cream puffs), a rich pastry made of fried doughnuts with ricotta cream filling.  Because the holiday falls during lent, meatless pasta dishes such as pasta con le sarde (pasta with sardines) are also eaten for the celebration.

Sfinci di San Giuseppe, also known as bignè di San Giuseppe or zeppole di San Giuseppe, originated in Palermo, Sicily.  These irresistible sinfully rich cream puffs are fried and filled with ricotta cream and chocolate chips.  Cream puffs can seem daunting for the novice baker to make, but they are quite simple to make.  These cream puffs are made with a choux pastry dough that is a little on the dry side so that they won’t get soggy when fried.  The trick is to get as much water out while cooking the dough.  The recipe is somewhat labor intensive; however, the cream puffs can be made several hours ahead of time and the filling can be made and refrigerated 2 days in advance or frozen for several weeks ahead of time.  The cream puffs can also be filled several hours ahead of time and refrigerated.

Note: It is best to fry the cream puffs in vegetable shortening because frying in oil causes the cream puffs to become soggy and have that fried greasy taste.

(Sfinci di San Giuseppe/ Zeppole di San Giuseppe)

Difficulty Rating: Moderate
Makes 10 large cream puffs.

2 pounds whole milk ricotta cheese
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 drops orange extract
2 drops lemon extract
2 drops almond extract
Cinnamon oil or 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup heavy cream, whipped
3 tablespoons mini chocolate chips
1 tablespoons finely minced candied orange peel
2 teaspoons finely minced citron

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup water
1 stick butter (4 ounces)
3 extra-large eggs
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon grated lemon or orange zest
Parchment paper, cut into 10 4-inch squares
Shortening for frying

Candied orange peel
Candied cherries
Confectioner’s sugar for dusting

Piping bags
Large star (1M) decorating tips (optional)
Large round (1A) decorating tip with 1/2-inch opening (optional)

1. MAKE THE FILLING:  The night before, wrap the ricotta in a clean kitchen towel and place in colander over a bowl to drain.  Place a salad plate on top of the ricotta with a weight on top such as a heavy can. Let drain 8 or more hours.  The ricotta should be somewhat dry and crumbly.

Using an electric mixer bowl fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the ricotta and granulated sugar on medium speed for 3 minutes.  Add the confectioners’ sugar and beat on medium high for 2 additional minutes, until smooth.  Using a toothpick, dip one end in the cinnamon oil and place 2 smears on the ricotta mixture (cinnamon oil is extremely potent using too much will ruin the filling).  Add vanilla, orange, lemon, and almond extracts.  Fold in whipped cream.  Stir in chocolate chips, citron, and candied orange peel.  Transfer to a medium bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate at least 6 hours to allow the flavors to develop.  Refrigerate up to 2 days or freeze up to 2 months, and thaw overnight in refrigerator.

2. MAKE THE CREAM PUFFS:  Melt enough shortening to reach a depth of 2-inches.  Heat over medium-heat to 365-370 degrees F.

Combine the flour and zest in a small bowl and set aside.

Using a large heavy bottom sauce pan over medium heat, heat the water, butter, sugar, and salt, and bring to a boil.  Using a wooden spoon, immediately add the flour and stir until it leaves the sides of the pan and comes together and forms a ball.  Reduce heat to low and continue to cook the mixture for 2 to 3 minutes longer.  Getting as much moisture out will make the cream puffs lighter.  Transfer to an electric mixer bowl and let the dough rest 5 minutes.  Turn the mixer on medium speed and beat for 1 minute.  Add eggs one at a time, beating 2 minutes for each addition.

Draw a 2 3/4-inch diameter circle on a sheet of paper as a template guide.  Place a parchment square on top. Using a piping bag fitted with the star tip, starting from the middle start piping a circle in a coil like fashion without stopping continue to pipe a border along the top of the top of the circle forming a hole in the middle.  Repeat with remaining dough.

Alternatively, you can pipe mounds of dough without using a star tip or scoop a generous tablespoon of dough onto each parchment square.  Let rest 5 minutes.  Carefully place the dough squares into the hot shortening upside down.  Using tongs, remove the paper after 30 seconds.  Fry the cream puffs 8 to 10 minutes, until golden brown.  Drain on paper towels and let cool.


3. ASSEMBLE CREAM PUFFS:  Make a small hole in each cream puff, and using a piping bag fitted with the round tip, use approximately 3/4 of the ricotta mixture to fill each cream puff with the ricotta.  You can also partially cut across each cream puff and fill using a spoon.  Spoon some of the remaining ricotta on top of each cream puff and smooth with the back of the spoon or a butter knife.

Dust with confectioner’s sugar and place a cherry and piece of candied orange peel on the top.

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