Le zeppole calabresi

zeppole16I’m rather disdainful of detoxes, fad diets and the guilt-inducing language that often surrounds the act of eating, particularly during the festive season. My motto is that all foods (except overly processed mass-produced ones!) are fine in moderation. However, if I did have to identify a ‘weakness’ I have for a ‘naughty food’, it would have to be anything that involves fried dough. And nothing says uno sfizio natalizio (literally, ‘a Christmas treat’) quite like le zeppole calabresi, Calabrian dough fritters, which are traditionally prepared during the Christmas period in Calabrese communities in Italy and throughout the world.

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Zeppola is a term that has come to be used all over southern Italy to describe many different types of sweet and savoury dough fritters. Le zeppole di San Giuseppe, the deep-fried nest-shaped choux filled with pastry cream made on the 19th March (the feast day of Saint Joseph), are probably the most famous example. If you’re looking for a recipe for these, I recommend this excellent post by blogger Daniel Etherington of Bread, Cakes and Ale.  For me though, the word zippula (this is the word for them in the Calabrian dialect) conjures up childhood memories of my nonna making a savoury and rather sticky dough during my family’s Christmas and New Year celebrations. The dough would be left to rise in a bowl for several hours and when it had risen sufficiently, nonna would heat up some oil in a pan. She would then take a piece of dough from the bowl, insert one of those salty fishies (I would remove those later! I didn’t appreciate anchovies when I was younger…) into it and expertly mould the viscid dough into a ring. After that, she would carefully immerse the ring into the hot oil bubbling on her stove.  Finally, when she was done frying, she would leave a bowl out so we could help ourselves to some crisp, donut-shaped zeppole.

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 Dough recipes, shapes and fillings for these fritters vary within the region of Calabria. A simple bread dough, for instance, can be  used to make them. When made this way, they require shaping and proving for an hour before being fried. In towns such as Maierato, they take on the intertwined and twisted form of a pretzel.  This shape, often said to symbolise arms crossing the chest (a braccia conserte), has long been considered an auspicious one in the region. Stickier doughs, on the other hand, are generally made with flour, water and yeast but there are variations which also include potatoes. Unlike their bread dough counterparts, they require no proving after rising and are moulded into balls and rings just seconds before being fried. Other savoury variants include sardine and ricotta cheese fillings. For those of you with a sweet tooth, sweet versions with sultanas also exist. The sultanas contrast wonderfully with the savoury dough enveloping them. And for the truly golosi[i], there are zeppole dusted with icing sugar after being fried.

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Two Christmases ago, while I was expecting TT, I remember feeling nostalgic for nonna’s zeppole and I tried making them myself. I wasn’t happy with the results. This year, in the lead-up to Christmas, my resolve to make them returned. To ensure my zeppole turned out better, I  enlisted the help of Marialuisa, my cousin’s wife and a native of the town of Maierato. Author of the The writEating’s Blog and an excellent home cook, she has an eye for both tradition and innovation in culinary matters. She’s even made zeppole with sweet potatoes! She was kind enough to share several recipes with detailed preparation tips. After all the experimentation that began with my prima padejata on the 7th December[ii], I’ve decided that I like combining bread and zeppola making. So, below you’ll find Marialuisa’s bread dough-based recipe. If time permits (and if I master the recipe!), I’ll be back for New Year with a stickier almost batter-like dough recipe like my nonna’s. Otherwise, there’s always next Christmas…

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Ingredients for zeppole di Maierato (makes about 12-15 zeppole)

  • 330 g water, tepid
  • 7 g dried yeast
  • 500 g strong bread flour, plus extra for dusting
  • 12 g salt
  • 1 L vegetable oil, for frying

Method

  1. Pour water in mixing bowl and dissolve dried yeast.
  2. Add flour and salt. Combine ingredients and knead until dough is smooth and no longer sticks to the surface.
  3. Cover mixing bowl with a damp tea-towel and leave dough to rise until doubled in size.
  4. Remove a fistful of dough from the bowl and on a clean, well-dusted work surface, roll it out as long as you can.
  5. Take the ends of the ‘rope’ you have formed and place them together so you have a circle.
  6. Twist the ends of the rope together and then bring the twisted ends toward the bottom curve.
  7. Repeat steps 4-6 until you have used all the dough.
  8. Place zeppole on a lightly dusted surface, cover, and leave to prove for an hour.
  9. Heat vegetable oil in a wide and deep pan to 170 degrees.
  10. Deep-fry the zeppole, no more than 3 at a time. Fry them on each side for 3-4 minutes or until they are crisp and have turned a golden colour.
  11. Remove zeppole onto a plate covered with absorbent paper towels.
  12. Serve warm as a snack or appetiser. These zeppole also work well as a bread substitute and can be used to fare la scarpetta[iii] at mealtime. Buon appetito e buon natale!

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[i] This word roughly translates to gourmand, avid, sweet tooth etc.

[ii] This is a reference to the Calabrese saying “A ‘Mmaculata a prima padejata” which means that once Immaculate Conception Day (in Italy, this public holiday on the 8th December is considered the beginning of the Christmas season) arrives, the first zeppole need to be made and fried-up. I couldn’t wait to make and test zeppole recipes, so my first ‘fry-up’ took place on the 7th December, one day early!

[iii] In Italian, fare la scarpetta means to wipe your plate clean with a piece of bread.

 

 

Italy Magazine Blogger Awards 2015

italy magazine blog awards

I apologise for the brief non-food related post but I have some exciting news to share. I’ve  been nominated in two categories (Best Food Blog and Best New Blog) for the 2015 edition of Italy Magazine’s Blogger Awards!

My friend and fellow BlogPiemonte blogger, Michelle of Simply Italiana,  has also been nominated in the Best Photography in a Blog category. An American on the quest for a simple life, she documents her life in Turin and travels in Italy with insightful posts and stunning photography.

If you’d like to vote for us, please click here.

In the meantime, a big thank you to my readers, fellow bloggers and social media followers. This would not have been possible without you.

Grazie e a presto!

 

 

Persimmon and hazelnut cake

IMG_6395There is nothing romantic about the summer heat in a densely populated inland city like Turin. Respite in the form of a breeze (and air-conditioning, as Italians generally don’t like colpi d’aria or ‘hits of air’!) is rare and all that concrete and cobblestone are notorious heat retainers, even at night.  Stovetop cooking and oven baking inevitably take a backseat in the kitchen as ice creams, salads and other chilled and/or raw dishes become daily menu fixtures. This year’s summer was particularly uncomfortable and I could not have been more grateful when autumn finally arrived.  ‘It’s my favourite season’, I found myself saying constantly, excited to be able to apply heat to food again. Risottos, roasts and soups. Bread, pizza and biscuits. I cooked and baked them all. I just could not stop singing the praises of the season’s colours, foliage and culinary delights.

Three weeks ago, my joyful tune came to an end. I came down with a fever and sinusitis.  Chills, a phlegmy nose and throbbing head pains left me unable to cook with my usual enthusiasm, scout my local market for fresh produce and worst of all, savour anything that entered my mouth.

Diminished energy levels and an incapacitated palate were not enough to stop my in-laws from arriving with their usual cratefuls of fruit and vegetables. Out of politeness, I made the effort to consume the food they insisted on bringing over. Of these, one seasonal fruit succeeded in reawakening my dormant tastebuds – persimmons from the Monferrato hills.

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According to Alan Davidson’s Oxford Companion to Food, the persimmon’s wild ancestor is native to China. There, cultivation dates to at least 2000 years ago and the fruit’s popularity quickly spread to neighbouring Korea and Japan.  Italy, like the rest of Europe,  had to wait until the 1500s to discover this species of fruit, when the peninsula’s first persimmon tree was planted in Florence’s Boboli Gardens. In the 17th century, another tree was planted in the Botanical Gardens of Misilmeri (a Sicilian town near Palermo) by the Franciscan friar and botanist Francesco Cupani da Mirto for scientific study and ornamental purposes. If you’ve ever seen persimmon trees in winter, you’ll understand why they were appreciated for their aesthetic qualities.  Stripped of their leaves by the cold, these vivid orange baubles remain, hanging precariously on to stark, bare branches. Eventually, people here did catch on that those baubles tasted wonderful too and, in the early  twentieth century, persimmons began to be grown in orchards in the regions of Campania, Sicily, and Emilia-Romagna. To this day, these regions remain Italy’s main producers of the fruit.

Cachi, the Italian word for persimmons, was borrowed from the Japanese kaki. Fuyus or non-astringent cachi are called cachi mela (literally, ‘persimmon apple’).  Like apples, these persimmons can be eaten firm. Hachiya or astringent cachi, on the other hand, contain bitter tannins when crisp and leave a furry aftertaste if eaten too hastily. I learnt this the hard way when I mistook a firm hachiya for a fuyu! So, to avoid that puckering sensation on your lips, hachiyas should be left to thoroughly ripen and soften to a wobbly, jam-like state.

Until recently, I had only ever eaten hachiya persimmons in the way I would eat a dessert, with their skin as a bowl and a spoon to scoop and slurp on their syrupy-sweet pulp.   Those cratefuls of rapidly ripening hachiyas, however,  left me needing to find a quick and alternate way of consuming them. As soon as the antibiotics started to take effect,  I began baking a series of cakes  with hachiya persimmons. Here is a recipe, inspired by elements from Emiko Davies’ and Marianna Franchi’s, for a spongy yet moist persimmon and hazelnut cake.

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 Ingredients

  • 2 eggs
  • 170 g sugar
  • 50 ml olive oil
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon (optional)
  • 300 g persimmon pulp, pureed (you’ll need about 3 very ripe medium-sized hachiya persimmons)
  • 100 g hazelnuts, finely ground
  • 200 g flour, sifted
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • a pinch of salt
  • Icing sugar, for dusting (optional)

Method

  • Preheat oven to 180 degrees.
  • Beat eggs and sugar until light and fluffy .
  • Slowly add olive oil to batter while mixing.
  • Add persimmon pulp and cinnamon and mix.
  • Add ground hazelnuts, flour, baking powder and salt to batter. Mix until all ingredients are well-combined.
  • Pour batter into a greased cake tin (I used one with a 26 cm diameter).
  • Bake for 30-40 minutes (or until cake skewer comes out clean).
  • Leave to cool and serve dusted with icing sugar.

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