Sfinci di San Giuseppe
St. Joseph’s Day, March 19, is only a week away and throughout Italy it is an important holiday. St. Joseph is revered as a father and defender of the weak. Since his feast day comes in the middle of Lent and coincides with the arrival of Spring, it is a nice break from winter and the sacrifices of the season. Southern Italians and Sicilians in particular celebrate enthuiastically, especially those named in honor of the saint. My husband Charles and I once spent a week in Sicily at this time of the year and will never forget it. The almond trees were blooming and the fields were covered with bright green newly sprouted wheat. Charles wrote about our visit to the home and cooking school of Anna Tasca Lanza at the Regaleali Winery in Sicily. You can read about it at www.i-italy.org/bloggers/wine-and-food
There are many different types of foods associated with St. Joseph’s Day depending on the region of Italy. Semolina bread sprinkled with poppy or sesame seeds, pasta con le sarde, and macco, a dried fava bean puree are three Sicilian favorites. Fried foods are popular, including artichokes, asparagus, rice balls, and cauliflower fritters. In fact, fried foods are so popular, that Saint Joseph is sometimes irreverently called San Giuseppe il Frittelaro, meaning Saint Joseph the frier. Fried dessert pastries include cannoli and zeppole, but none is more beloved in Sicily than Sfinci di San Giuseppe. The name sfinci, according to Mary Taylor Simeti in her outstanding book on Sicilian food customs, Pomp and Sustenance, derives from an Arabic word for light, or airy. That’s all in the way you interpret light, I guess, and delicious as they are, one a year are a treat and more than enough! The photo to the left is a sfince that Charles and I recently shared at Veniero’s Pastry Shop. It was very good, and not nearly as tooth-achingly sweet as the versions I have eaten in Sicily.
Sfinci are basically fried spoonfuls of cream puff batter stuffed with sweetened ricotta and chocolate chips. If you would like to make them at home, here is a recipe adapted from my book Italian Holiday Cooking
SFINCI DI SAN GIUSEPPE
One 15 ounce container part-skim milk ricotta
1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons chopped semisweet chocolate
1 tablespoon chopped candied orange peel or citron
1 cup water
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup all purpose flour
4 large eggs
Vegetable oil for frying
Candied orange peel or cherries, and chopped pistachios, for garnish
1. To make the cream, whisk the ricotta, sugar and vanilla until smooth. Stir in the chocolate and orange peel. (Can be made up to 24 hours ahead. Cover and refrigerate.)
2. In a medium saucepan over medium low heat, heat the butter, water, and salt until the butter melts and the mixture reaches a boil. Remove from the heat. Add the flour all at once and stir well with a wooden spoon until the flour is completely incorporated.
3. Return the saucepan to the stove over medium heat. Cook, stirring constantly and turning the dough often, until the dough begins to leave a thin film on the bottom of the saucepan, about 3 minutes. Transfer the dough to a large bowl.
4. Add the eggs one at a time beating thoroughly after each addition with a wire whisk. At first the dough will resist absorbing the eggs, but continue to beat it until smooth.
5. In a deep heavy saucepan or deep fryer, bring about 3 inches of oil to 370° F on a deep frying thermometer. Scoop up about 1 rounded tablespoon of the batter. With another spoon, push the batter into the oil being careful not to splash it.
6. Add more spoonfuls of batter but do not crowd the pan. The batter will puff up and double or triple in size. Cook, turning the puffs often, until golden brown. When they are almost done, the sfinci will break open. Continue to cook 1 or two minutes more. Remove the puffs with a slotted spoon or skimmer. Place them on paper towels to drain. Repeat with the remaining batter.
7. When all of the puffs have been fried, split them partially open like a book with a small knife. Fill with the ricotta cream. Garnish the cream with strips of candied orange peel.
8. Serve warm or chill until serving time. These are best eaten soon after they are made.