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A new doughnut is in town

The fluffy fried Italian zeppola is all about celebrations and indulgent fillings

Zeppole come with a variety of fillings and toppings.
Zeppole come with a variety of fillings and toppings.

Ever since I spent a semester in Bologna in northern Italy during my college days, I have been obsessed with all things Italian, especially the cuisine. On a visit to the US last year, when I found out about an Italian food festival in Hoboken, New Jersey, I had to check it out for myself. Although I had tried a range of local cuisine during my stay in Italy, it was in the US that I had the zeppola for the very first time. These fluffy fried balls of dough, with a diameter of around 4 inches, are the Italian version of doughnuts.

At Hoboken, the zeppola stall was the only one with a really long line. After anxiously waiting for 30 minutes, we placed an order for two zeppole. The woman at the counter laughed and asked if I meant two dozen, because apparently that’s the measure in which it was being sold. After trying one from a set of 12, I was sold. I went back and queued up for another dozen.

This “doughnut", which originates in southern Italy, is usually topped with powdered sugar. It comes in different sizes and with a variety of fillings, such as custard, jelly, butter and honey, or ricotta with small pieces of chocolate, candied fruits and honey. There are savoury varieties of zeppole as well, filled with small fish such as anchovy, and commonly consumed in Calabria (south-west Italy) and the island nation of Malta. The savoury zeppole, apart from being shaped into balls, can also be stretched or twisted. The basic zeppola dough can be crisp, light and airy when made with puff pastry, or thicker and more bread-like when made with pizza dough.

There are Biblical references to this pastry. When Joseph fled to Egypt with Mary and baby Jesus, he began selling desserts, including the zeppole, to support his family. It was, however, in the early 19th century that zeppole were popularized by a baker named Pasquale Pintauro in Naples. Today, zeppole are widely available throughout southern Italy, including Rome, Naples, Sicily and Sardinia, as well as Malta and Croatia. Italian-American communities in Canada and the US also prepare this mouth-watering delicacy, especially during festivals such as the Festa di San Giuseppe (Saint Joseph’s Day) on 19 March, the Feast of San Gennaro, celebrated from 14-24 September, and around Christmas. In Calabria, people eat savoury zeppole on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, and, in Malta, during Lent.

Zeppole are not all that common in Mumbai, but a chance discovery made me realize that I could easily make my own. While trawling through the internet for food delivery, I came across a recipe on the website of Foodhall, the gourmet food store. I have been eagerly looking forward to try my own version of the dessert since I found out that all the ingredients listed are easily available in my neighbourhood store. I was even more excited to learn that Francesco’s Pizzeria, a Mumbai-based eatery specializing in Italian cuisine, plans to add zeppole to its menu in the coming weeks. Davide Cananzi, Francesco’s consultant chef, has great memories of eating zeppole through a childhood spent in Sardinia. His version of the zeppole will be a simple fluffy pastry covered with a mix of sugar and cinnamon powder and topped with vanilla or chocolate custard.

A handful of Italian restaurants across the country serve this delicacy, including the Mumbai-based Gustoso, which makes a zeppole drizzled with Nutella, and Delhi Airport’s Radisson Blu Plaza, which offers the zeppole at its Italian-themed Sunday brunch.

Meanwhile, I am in the middle of perfecting my very own zeppole at home and introducing my friends and family to these delicious doughnuts without holes.

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