A zeppola is a Southern Italian dessert, a small round deep-fried cake, similar to a large donut hole, that is often filled with custard or with filling close to that used in traditional cannoli. The plural of zeppola may be written as zeppoli or zeppole, and to confuse matters, the little cakes may have two completely different names: sfinge, or Bigne di San Giuseppe (St. Joseph Day Cakes). The latter name refers to the fact that zeppole are often served on St. Joseph’s day, 19 March, which is somewhat analogous to the celebration of Father’s Day in the US, though it also honors Joseph, husband to the Virgin Mary.
Each zeppola is relatively small, about two inches (5.08 cm) wide. The dough used to make them is typically quick bread dough, though some variants might use yeast-risen bread dough. Dough isn’t often sweetened and depends upon filling or dipping to add sweetness. In simplest form zeppole may not be filled and are just given a light dusting of cinnamon sugar. Other times, bakeries make the distinction between a zeppola and a sfinge by suggesting that sfinge are those zeppole filled with custard, while a true zeppola is always filled with a sweetened ricotta cheese.
In Italy, particularly in Southern regions, and along the Italian peninsula, you’ll note zeppole sold in most bakeries. As St. Joseph’s day approaches, numerous street vendors, called friggitorie, meaning fried food stands, sell zeppola to waiting crowds. You’ll also find these little cakes filled with a few unusual ingredients in certain regions. They can for instance, be savory instead of sweet and contain anchovy paste, ricotta cheese with ground chickpeas and spices, or a variety of other ingredients.
There are some recipes for zeppole that are baked instead of fried. Other recipes suggest you lightly bake each zeppola before frying it. Writers of these recipes contend that prebaking reduces greasiness and frying time and results in a lighter and lower in calorie dessert. If you want to reduce calories, baking would be the way to go, and you can further reduce calories by filling zeppoli with any type of fruit jam or spread instead of custard or ricotta.
Another popular way to serve a zeppola is to dip it in honey. In many regions, when sweet zeppoli are made, and whether or not they’re filled, they’re given a dollop of whipped cream on the top and then topped with a cherry. If you buy them in a bakery though, they may have been sitting for a while. Some say the best way to eat them is straight from the friggitorie vendors, when they’re hottest and freshest. Of course, making them at home means you can eat them right after you allowed them to cool a bit.