I’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.
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.
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.
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…
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
- Pour water in mixing bowl and dissolve dried yeast.
- Add flour and salt. Combine ingredients and knead until dough is smooth and no longer sticks to the surface.
- Cover mixing bowl with a damp tea-towel and leave dough to rise until doubled in size.
- Remove a fistful of dough from the bowl and on a clean, well-dusted work surface, roll it out as long as you can.
- Take the ends of the ‘rope’ you have formed and place them together so you have a circle.
- Twist the ends of the rope together and then bring the twisted ends toward the bottom curve.
- Repeat steps 4-6 until you have used all the dough.
- Place zeppole on a lightly dusted surface, cover, and leave to prove for an hour.
- Heat vegetable oil in a wide and deep pan to 170 degrees.
- 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.
- Remove zeppole onto a plate covered with absorbent paper towels.
- 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!
[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.