Feast day calls for a special sweet

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Feast day calls for a special sweet

Photo by: Debra Samuels Zeppole with vanilla cream and amarena cherries

By Debra Samuels
Globe Correspondent / March 18, 2009

In Italy tomorrow, men named Joseph and women named Josephine will hand out zeppole, a Neopolitan pastry of fried dough filled with cream, to family and friends to mark the feast of San Giuseppe. Closer to home, this patron saint of families is given his due at Italian bakeries in the area.

At Modern Pastry in the North End, baker Dago Ortez has been making zeppole for 19 years. Ortez uses an old-fashioned scale with free weights to measure his ingredients; the dough is fried twice and fillings are made from scratch. “I make these with my heart,” says Ortez. Originally from El Salvador, Ortez was taught the art of making zeppole by Giovanni Picariello, whose son John, a sixth-generation baker, now owns the bakery with his sister Rosaria and mother Josephine.
Like many labor-intensive pastries, zeppole are no longer made by the women in the household. “My mother-in-law is from Sicily and she used to make them, but she doesn’t do it anymore,” says Paul Ursino, owner of Salem Foods, an Italian deli in Waltham. So Italian bakeries have become the surrogate nonne (grandmothers), and their pastry chefs work feverishly during the weeks leading up to the feast, known here as Saint Joseph’s Day. Ortez says he can make, and sell out of, 400 zeppole a day; as Saint Joseph’s approaches, he sometimes makes up to 1,000 daily.

Zeppole vary from region to region but are basically made of a choux paste (cream puff) dough. At Modern Pastry, Ortez’s movements are like a choreographed dance sequence. He brings a huge pot of water and fat to a boil, then pours it into a commercial-size mixer. Then he adds the measured flour in one movement and sets a large paddle to work combining this into a paste. Ortez has ready a 2-quart metal pitcher filled with 160 eggs that he rhythmically cracks – klink, crack, klink, crack, klink, crack – adding three at a time to the paste. Using only his eyes and experience, he knows when to add the next three, and the next three, until the paste is a perfect consistency. There is no rushing this process.

Next he scoops the paste with a rubber spatula into long pastry bags fitted with a star tip and pipes large rings onto a baking sheet covered with parchment paper. Two cauldrons of hot oil are ready. Ortez slips the rings from one sheet into one of the pots. Picariello explains: “We fry the rings in two different vats of oil. One at a low temperature – it helps the zeppole rise. The other, very hot, where they cook, expand in size, and fill the entire surface of the cauldron.”

In constant motion, Ortez sways back and forth between the two vats swirling the zeppole until they are perfect. With a wire basket he scoops these amber jewels from the bubbling oil and sets them on a baking sheet. Piled high atop a glass case, they wait to be plucked and filled to order with a vanilla custard made from whole milk on the premises and studded with sweet and sour ruby red amarena cherries, also freshly made, and sprinkled with powdered sugar. Other fillings available are ricotta cream or chocolate custard; the zeppole sell for $3 apiece.

Teresa Scialoia is on her way back to Florida and is stocking up on some favorites at the bakery before heading to the airport. “I used to work here so whenever I come back I stop by. Too bad I can’t take the zeppole on the plane.”

She is joined by her sister-in-law Carolina from Medford and a friend from Saugus named Fran Contino. Both have family members with the name Joseph. “This is the only place I come” for zeppole, says Contino, eyeing the pastries. Carolina will return with her 21-year-old son, Joseph, who will buy a dozen. “It is our tradition,” she says.
“People want me to have the zeppole all year round,” says Picariello, “but then it wouldn’t be special.”
Modern Pastry, 257 Hanover St., Boston, 617-523-3783 and 20 Salem St., Medford, 781-396-3618; http://www.modernpastry.com/

© Copyright 2009 Globe Newspaper Company.

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