Buona Festa del Papà! (Happy Father’s Day)
You may think I have the wrong date but here in Italy, Father’s Day is celebrated on March 19th which coincides with St. Joseph’s Day (La Festa di San Giuseppe), who happens to be the patron saint of the Church, fathers and carpenters. And is it then a coincidence that the inaugural mass for Pope Francis is taking place this morning?
St Joseph’s Day for me is all about bignè di San Giuseppe (tells you how religious I am) and from the bit of research I have done, La Festa di San Giuseppe is a tradition which started in Sicily during the Middle Ages when they was a severe drought and famine. In desperation, the people prayed to St. Joseph asking him to intervene and when the rain came, they celebrated and honored their patron saint with a large feast which today is known as La Tavola di San Giuseppe.
I have never seen this feast before but can just imagine the cornucopia of food especially as we are talking about Sicily! One day I will have to plan another trip to Sicily to experience these celebrations. For now, the bignè di San Giuseppe will have to suffice.
In Rome you can easily know when the next festival or celebration is coming up just by stepping into one of the many pasticcerie (pastry shops) or bakeries and the evidence will be staring you in the face.
And yeah, there is always something to celebrate. When you see frappe and castagnole, that means Carnevale is on its way and even before that’s over, you would see some bigne di San Giuseppe displayed on the counters. That would then be followed by colomba and chocolate eggs for Easter. I think you get the idea!
A few weeks ago when my sister was in town, we dropped by the neighborhood hole-in-the-wall bakery. Very popular especially on Sundays, it has a nice variety of sweets and though it’s not Regoli, it’s a good stand-in for days when the craving hits.
We were there as my sister wanted to get her usual sweet treats but when she saw the huge bignè on the counter, her eyes lit up and she turned to me and asked “What are those?”
I hadn’t even thought about them all and when it dawned on me, I told her with excitement “There are bignè di San Giuseppe – you have to absolutely try them!” My sister didn’t need much to be sold. And there were heavenly!
If you can’t get a bite of the bignè San Giuseppe here in Rome, the second best thing is to make them at home. It’s like making cream puffs or choux pastry but instead of baking them, they are fried then filled with pastry cream. You don’t need any fancy equipment as you will see in this recipe. I didn’t have a pastry bag and made do with the good ol’ ziplock bag.
Here’s a recipe which I experimented with and it turned out very nicely. I usually don’t fry things and had considered baking them but heck, La Festa di San Giuseppe is only once a year.
Recipe for the bignè adapted from Le Ricette della Prova del Cuoco
Ingredients for the bignè
250ml of water
50g of butter
150g of flour
Peanut oil for frying
Powdered/icing sugar for dusting at the end.
1. Boil the water and the butter together in a pot.
2. When the butter has melted add all the flour at once and stir constantly on low heat until the mixture leaves the side of the pan and forms a ball.
3. Leave it to cool for about 30 minutes.
4. Add the eggs one at a time and stir until you get a soft dough (not liquid!)
5. Let the dough rest of an hour. During this time you can prepare the pastry cream
6. After an hour, heat up plenty of oil in a pan. With a teaspoon, scoop up some dough and with the help of another teaspoon, form it into a round dough the size of a walnut.
7. Gently (I am stressing this!) drop them into the oil. Do not fry too many at once as they will puff up. Fry them over low/medium heat for about 12-15 minutes until golden.
9. Let them cool.
Recipe for the pastry cream adapted from ButtaLaPasta.it
Ingredients for pastry cream
4 egg yolks
80 grams of sugar (reduced from the original recipe)
40 grams flour (sifted)
½ liter of milk
One vanilla bean
1. Mix egg yolks and sugar until smooth. Add the sifted flour to this mixture.
2. Heat the milk and the lemon rind and vanilla bean just to a boil. Remove from heat.
3. Remove the lemon rind and vanilla bean. Split the vanilla bean open and scrap out the seeds adding them to the milk.
4. Slowly add the milk to the egg mixture whisking constantly.
5. Pour the mixture back into a pot and cook over low heat until it becomes thick.
6. Pour the cream into a bowl and cover the surface with plastic wrap so that surface doesn’t form a crust.
7. Let it cool.
Assembling the bignè di San Giuseppe
1. Cut a small section from the corner of your ziplock bag as your makeshift pastry bag. Fill the bag with the pastry cream.
2. Take a bignè, pick the least presentable side and using the back of a teaspoon, gently make a hole (I used a chopstick – much easier).
3. Then fill the bignè.
4. Dust with powdered sugar and enjoy!!
The pastry cream wasn’t outstanding and I plan on looking for another recipe or use the one my cousin, who is a pastry chef, gave me. The bignè, on the other hand, turned out beautifully!
To give you an idea of how it’s done, here’s a video (in Italian) to give you a quick look at how the pros make bignè di San Giuseppe!