Each afternoon during my cooking classes in Southern Italy (see here and here), my instructor, Maria, would present me with the daily menu, giving me the run down of what we’d be preparing for that evening. Most days, I was familiar with the items: eggplant parmesan, fresh tagliatelle, ragù, risotto. But on the final day of my lessons, the menu included an item that I’d never heard of before. Something called zeppole.
I read through the list of ingredients–potatoes, butter, flour, sugar, lemon, eggs–and sat in silence, trying to figure out exactly what this dish would be. The sugar, butter, and eggs made me think it was sweet. But it had potatoes as one of the main ingredients. And in what world are potatoes included in dessert?
Since Maria spoke only Italian, and I only English, we had a translator with us during our lessons, a petite Italian woman named Christina whose mother hailed from England and had taught her English as a child. Christina told me that the zeppole were like “sugary biscuits”…and then I was even more confused.
For my non-US based readers: We use the term “biscuits” in the US mostly to mean dense buttery dough circles that are often eaten for breakfast with jelly, sausage, or an egg. So in my head, I began to imagine something like a traditional southern biscuit (see here), with some potatoes built in. Intriguing…
But wrong again.
It wasn’t until Maria began showing me how to assemble the dough into its proper form, a flat disc with a hole punched through the middle, and the hot oil started to bubble in its cast iron that I realized just what we were making. We were making doughnuts.
Wait a minute, wait a minute. Didn’t you just put mashed up potatoes into that dough?
Maria plopped the soft, supple discs into the large pot, oil popping loudly around them until they turned a lovely golden brown. She pulled them from the oil and handed them off to me to coat in a tray of sugar before transferring them again onto a rack to cool.
As we moved towards frying and coating the last few doughnuts, Maria insisted that I try one, saying every Italian knows the best way to eat zeppole is to eat them when they’re hot and fresh. We each picked one up off the tray at her cheerful insistence and bit into the sugar-drenched fried dough. The crisp golden crust gave way to a soft, pillowy center. Sugar stuck to the corners of my lips. And after several hours in the kitchen, I finally understood exactly just what the potatoes had done to this divine confection.
When I made them this weekend, I also chose to pair them with a sauce. (What can I say? I like my desserts messy.) And a whiskey crème anglaise seemed fit the bill, adding a little extra sweetness and just a bit of smoke.
It’s been over a year since I had my first taste of zeppole, hovering over the tray of sugar in Maria’s sunlit kitchen. But memory of that afternoon still dances in my head like it was yesterday. The biggest difference is that when I make them now, I’m giddy with excitement of what’s to come. My earlier confusion left behind in Maria’s southern Italian cucina in favor of joyful anticipation.
- • 1 pounds of russet potatoes (about 2 medium-sized potatoes)
- • 3¾ cups of all purpose flour
- • ½ cup of butter (1 stick), melted
- • 4 eggs
- • 25grams of fresh yeast (or 1 ½ tablespoons of active dry yeast)
- • grated zest of ½ lemon
- • a pinch of salt
- • 2 tablespoons of granulated sugar
- • Canola oil for frying
- • White granulated and brown sugar mixed together, for finishing
- • Whiskey crème anglaise (see below), for serving (optional)
- • 1 vanilla bean
- • 1 cup of heavy whipping cream
- • 3 egg yolks
- • ¼ cup of granulated sugar
- • 2 tablespoons of whiskey
- Peel the potatoes, cut into 1” chunks and boil in a pot of water until they can easily pierce with a fork, about 10-15 minutes. Strain potatoes well and, when cool enough to handle, mash with a potato masher. If you don’t have a potato masher, a sturdy whisk is a good substitute.
- If you're using active dry yeast, dissolve a pinch of sugar into a bowl with 3 tablespoons of warm water. The water should be warm, not hot, or else it will kill the yeast. Add the yeast to the warm, sugared water, stir so that all of the granules are touching the water, and let sit in at room temperature, away from any drafts in the house, until it begins to foam, about 10 minutes. If it doesn't foam up a bit, your yeast may be old and you should begin with fresh granules. (If you're using fresh yeast, move onto the next step.)
- Combine the potatoes, flour, butter, eggs, yeast (if you're using active dry, see step above and make sure you're adding the activated yeast here--it if you're using "fresh yeast" you can add it directly to the bowl), lemon zest, salt, and white sugar in a large bowl. Mix together and work the dough until soft and smooth, about 5-10 minutes. Though dough will be fairly wet but if it feels too wet and too sticky to work with, add ¼ cup (or more, as needed) more flour and work it into the dough until it's manageable.
- Roll out onto a well-floured work surface until dough is about ¼ inch thick. Using a biscuit cutter (or a glass), cut out circles from the dough, re-rolling the scraps until all of the dough has been used. Cut a hole into the center of the dough. There are various things around the house you can use to do this. Maria used a part of her espresso maker. I use the fat part of a baster (and blow out the dough from the other end so it doesn’t build up and get stuck in my baster.) You can either reshape the cut out pieces into another doughnut or you can roll these into balls to make petit doughnut holes!
- Allow dough to rest in a warm place for 1-2 hours. Anywhere without a draft should work, but don't leave it somewhere that's warmer than 80 degrees F.
- Once the dough has roughly doubled in size, heat oil in a cast iron skillet or dutch oven over medium heat. When the oil begins to shimmer on top, about 350 degrees F, drop the zeppole into the oil and fry in batches. They will float to the surface, so once you notice the bottom of the dough get golden brown, flip the doughnut to fry the other side. The whole doughnut takes about 3-4 minutes to fry. If they are frying much faster than this, turn the heat down slightly as it may be too high and you will likely end up with a very uncooked center.
- While the doughnuts are frying, sprinkle white and brown sugar on a tray for coating. Once the doughnut is finished frying, remove from the oil and roll in the sugar mixture. (Alternatively, you could sprinkle with powdered sugar.)
- Cut the vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape out the seeds, using the back of your knife. Add the seeds and the remaining bean to a saucepan. Add cream to the saucepan and cook over medium heat until you notice bubbles begin to form around the edges of the saucepan. Remove the bean from the saucepan.
- While the cream and vanilla are heating, whisk together the egg yolks and the sugar in a small bowl. Slowly pour the cream and vanilla mixture into the egg mixture, whisking as you pour.
- Return the egg and cream mixture to the saucepan and heat over low to medium heat, stirring constantly until it thickens to your desired consistency and can coat the back of a spoon, about 3-5 minutes.
- Remove from heat and allow to cool. Once mixture has cooled to room temperature, add the whiskey and serve.
Whiskey Crème Anglaise recipe adapted from Food.com.