By Murray Schulman
I stopped into a bakery today and noticed a sign on the door stating that St. Joseph cakes were available. I had no idea what a St. Joseph’s cake was. So, I went inside and walked up to the owner asking “OK, what is a St. Joseph’s cake?” He pointed out this delicious-looking pastry which I purchased along with a bunch of other delicacies. As you know, I have no business spending any time in an Italian-style pastry shop. I have no ability to just buy one item as a treat. Instead, I have to buy one of every item just because they look so darn good. Plus, the flavors are heavenly.
So, now I can identify a St. Joseph’s cake. I also found out that these cakes would only be available until mid-March. I still had no idea why this shop was offering St Joseph’s cake. Why is there a special cake for St. Joseph and why is it only available until mid-March? I carried my multiple bags and boxes of goodies out to the car and headed home.
After putting everything away, I sat down in front of my computer to try to unmask this mystery cake. I did discover some interesting information.
Did you know that there is a Feast of St. Joseph celebrated in Western Christianity? It seems that this feast day was elevated, altered, abolished and regionalized by various popes throughout the last several centuries. The feast has strong roots in Sicily, Spain, Malta, Portugal, Poland and here in the United States. In Sicily, St. Joseph (San Giuseppe) is the patron saint. Joseph is recognized as the spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the legal father of Jesus Christ. Thus, a feast day is celebrated in his honor in several Christian denominations around the world. Most prevalent is the Catholic version of this feast day as celebrated in the Sicilian tradition. I can go on and on in depth about the influences on this feast day by Popes Pius V, X and XII. But most of you, like me, want to get to the good stuff.” We all want to look at how food and this feast go hand in hand. So, let’s get to it.
It is traditional to celebrate this feast by placing a St. Joseph’s altar in a household or in a public place. This alter is usually three-tiered symbolizing the trinity. It is laid out with a variety of food that symbolize some aspect of St. Joseph. In addition, other food items placed on the altar are believed to bring luck in one form or another. People will place flowers, lemons, limes, wine fava beans, cakes, bread and cookies on the altars. No meat dishes are ever part of the offerings on the St. Joseph’s altar. Don’t forget, this feast falls right in the middle of Lent. Food prepared with breadcrumbs is traditional in that the breadcrumbs symbolize sawdust. Joseph was a carpenter and sawdust was a part of who he was. Fava beans are said to bring good luck. Wine is a celebration ingredient that is used in ritual as well as in any celebration of life. There was a story that tells of single young women stealing the lemons and limes from the altars. The story goes on to explain that the theft of these lemons and limes brings luck in finding a husband for these young women. I say this with some caution as I am hopeful that some of you ladies reading this column don’t start a spree of citrus thefts from the produce stands in the area. Remember that this is just a story.
With the large influx of Italians from Sicily forming communities in cities throughout the U.S.A., these traditions have carried over into Italian-American culture. The Feast of St. Joseph is a major event in New Orleans due to the large Sicilian community in that city. Parades, street fairs and St. Joseph’s altars line the streets as the entire community turns out to join in the celebration.
Let’s circle back to the St. Joseph cakes that I found. In 1840 on St. Joseph’s Day, Don Pasquale Pinatauro of Napoli created a Neapolitan pastry known as a zeppola. The zeppola has become known as the traditional pastry of this feast day. The St. Joseph’s cake that I purchased today comes from that pastry of 180 years ago. Our baker prepares a large zeppola. He fills the center with ricotta filling. These also come filled with Italian pastry cream, chocolate butter cream, cannoli cream or pretty much any flavor filling. Of course, ricotta is the most popular. Once filled, the zeppola is generously sprinkled with powdered sugar and finished with a cherry. If you are planning on trying some of these delicious and traditional treats, you better hurry up. After March 19, they will be gone until early February next year. One final reminder: On St. Joseph’s Day, tradition dictates that you break out your bright red shirt or outfit. Be careful, though. The powdered sugar from your St. Joseph’s cake will be all over that bright red shirt. I say a little sugar on my shirt is well worth it when it comes to sweet creamy Italian pastry.