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Honor a patron saint (and your dad) with St. Joseph Cake


Most non-Italians in the United States have very little or no connection to St. Joseph’s Day, a purely Italian and Italian-American traditional feast day. The custom of celebrating St. Joseph was established by the Pope in Rome as early as 1479. In 1955 Pope Pius XII instituted the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker. In Italy, there are actually two recognized dates in March for the recognition of Joseph as a saint. The first is for St. Joseph the Worker. Joseph was a carpenter by trade. The use of breadcrumbs in foods related to this feast are representative of the sawdust that would be found in Joseph’s carpentry shop. This takes place on March 1.

The much more widely celebrated Feast of St. Joseph takes place on March 19. This feast is a crossover between a traditional religious feast day and Father’s Day in Italy. While this day is celebrated throughout Italy, it is even more important in Sicily. There, St. Joseph is the patron saint. The story goes that Sicilians were facing a major drought. This would have wreaked havoc with the regional crops and would have resulted in a devastating famine. The people of this region prayed to St. Joseph for rain because he is, among other things, the patron saint of crops and workers. Sure enough, the belief is that St. Joseph heard their prayers and the rains fell. The drought was averted, the crops were saved, and food was plentiful. As a result, St. Joseph is an annual event and feast day in Sicily.

It is interesting that this tradition was carried to the United States by Italian immigrants and eventually was an ongoing tradition among the Italian-American community. Most of my readers know that many Italian-American traditions have roots in Philadelphia, New Jersey and Delaware. Did you know that New Orleans, La., is a major hub of the Sicilian community? New Orleans used to be an arrival port for Sicilians. In fact, the French Quarter of the city was called Little Palermo. St. Joseph’s Day is a city-wide celebration in the Quarter with all the traditional foods and festivities. Because the feast of St. Joseph falls during Lent, you won’t find any meat on the altar also known as St. Joseph’s Table. What you will find is a beautiful array of pasta, seafood dishes, vegetables, and of course, dessert.

I already told you about the significance of breadcrumbs being used in pasta because it resembles sawdust that would have been in Joseph’s carpentry shop. Fava beans are always part of the St. Joseph’s Table in Italian tradition as a symbol of luck. Single women saw fava beans as a source of luck in finding an ideal husband. It is funny that there is no mention in the tradition of how that worked out for the ladies. But the tradition continues. Another “lucky” traditional food served during this feast is the lemon. We find that the lemon represents good luck in many of the feast days and traditions.

The most popular and widely recognized traditional food for St. Joseph’s Day is the St. Joseph Cake. I was introduced to this cake by a friend, Nino of Gianino’s Pastry Shop in Sewell, N.J. This St Joseph Cake, or Zeppole di San Giuseppe, is on the shelves, racks, and in the windows of any self-respecting Italian Pastry Shop at this time of year. In South Philly, you may even be able to purchase one of these sweet, delicious masterpieces as you walk along the street. I can’t imagine that any of my readers haven’t heard of the St. Joseph Cake. They are usually available from the end of February right through the month of March.

The cakes are about the size of a large doughnut. I use the plural, cakes, because buying just one is nearly impossible. The pastry shell itself is a cross between a cream puff and a yeast doughnut. Like a doughnut, the zeppola is fried to a light golden-brown color that is gently crispy on the outside while soft and airy on the inside. Just the thought of the pastry makes my mouth water. The next element is the filling. It may be a cream filling in either vanilla, chocolate, or lemon. These are the most common traditional filling flavors of cream. Of course, some bakeries let their imagination run wild so any number of flavored cremes are possible. The other traditional filling is the sweet ricotta with chocolate chips. This is very similar to cannoli filling. This is another reason that I say you can’t buy one. I can’t tell you which filling I like best. They are all delicious. So, I buy a variety. Next, while the zeppola is still warm, it is dusted with powdered sugar and finished with a cherry in most bakeries. If you happen to go to a little more upscale and traditional bakery, The St. Joseph cakes that you will find may be finished with Amarena, a sour cherry jam that is an amazing counterpoint to the rest of the cake.

If you have never tried a St. Joseph Cake, you are missing one of the true joys in life. If you have had these before, take this as a gentle reminder of how incredibly delicious they are. This is the time to go to your local Italian pastry shop and purchase some of these cakes. Order different flavored fillings, cut them into quarters letting everyone in your family get a taste. Besides honoring a patron saint, this festival provides another opportunity to celebrate your dad. Now you know about a second “Father’s Day” for our Italian-American families.

Murray Schulman

Murray Schulman, a columnist with the Italian-American Herald for 12 years, has worked in the food business for more than 50 years, sharing his expertise in kitchens, offices and classrooms spanning several states. He retired in 2017 as head of prepared foods for Delaware Supermarkets Inc. He lives in Pennsville, N.J

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