My Maltese family has been telling me about zeppoli – or zeppole in Italian – for many, many years. Countless stories about these puffy, tiny balls of choux pastry, fried to golden perfection, and filled with ricotta, fed my curiosity and made my mouth water. In Malta, the little sweets, also known as sfineġ, are traditionally made on the 19th March to celebrate the feast of St. Joseph. The filling is rich, refined with chocolate and candied peel and fruit, and topped with chopped hazelnuts. In other parts of the Mediterranean, like southern Italy, Sicily, and Sardinia, you can also find them plain, rolled in sugar, dipped in melted chocolate, or topped with vanilla custard. There wasn’t the slightest doubt which version I’d go for.
The problem is, when you have an idea of a classic dish without actually ever having tried it, it becomes a dish of its own. In my mind, I always imagined the little puff balls filled with pretty berries. I couldn’t really see the chopped chocolate bits but lots of vanilla freshly scraped out of its pod, sweet orange juice, and fragrant Maltese honey stirred into the creamy ricotta. I have an excuse, I’ve never been to the Maltese archipelago on St. Joseph’s special day, so I have never tried a single original zeppoli. Therefore, I just used my imagination and my critical Maltese man, and gave this project a go in my kitchen. I’m not the biggest fan of deep-frying – and some zeppoli recipes even allow you to bake the pastry in the oven – but I didn’t want to move away from its origin too much. I made 26 of the crisp balls and to my surprise, they all turned out well, apart from the usual 2 to 3 first trials to find the right temperature setting. It should be relatively low, on medium, so that the inside can cook long enough without burning on the outside – golden and crisp should be the goal. The filling was delicious, fine and aromatic, and a couple raspberries and blueberries on top made it summery fresh. I was more than pleased with the result, and so was my Maltese man, the last zeppoli ‘disappeared’ after dinner.
There’s also a savoury version of this dish, filled with anchovies, however, my imagination fails to give me an idea of how this would taste. I guess I have to go to Malta for this culinary experience. If you’re into deep-fried sweets, you can also try my Greek Loukoumades, made with yeast dough.
Have a Happy Easter with your loved ones and enjoy lots of chocolate eggs! xx
Maltese Zeppoli – Fried Cream Puffs with Vanilla Ricotta and Berries
Makes about 26 cream puffs
For the filling
fresh ricotta 250g / 9 ounces
flowery honey, such as orange blossom, 1 tablespoon
freshly squeezed orange juice 1 tablespoon
vanilla pod, scraped, 1/2
raspberries, 1 small handful (about 100g / 3 1/2 ounces)
blueberries, 1 small handful (about 100g / 3 1/2 ounces)
For the choux pastry
sunflower oil, about 1 1/2l / 6 cups, to fry the pastry
unsalted butter 120g / 1/2 cup
granulated sugar 50g / 4 tablespoons
fine sea salt 1/8 teaspoon
water 120ml / 1/2 cup
plain flour, siefted, 130g / 1 cup
organic eggs 3
For the topping
For the ricotta filling, in a medium bowl, whisk the ricotta, honey, orange juice, and vanilla seeds until creamy. Season with honey and vanilla to taste. Keep the ricotta in the fridge until you fill the choux pastry.
In a large, heavy pot, heat the sunflower oil on medium-high heat. Line a large baking dish with kitchen paper.
For the pastry, in a large pot, bring the butter, sugar, salt, and water to the boil. Turn the heat down to low, stir in the flour vigorously with a wooden spoon, and mix until smooth and the dough comes away from the side of the pan. Transfer the dough to a bowl and let it cool for about 10 minutes. Beat the eggs in with a spoon, 1 at a time, only mix in the next one when the one before is well combined.
When the oil is hot – dip in the bottom end of a wooden spoon, little bubbles, should form around it – scoop out 1 heaping teaspoon of the dough and carefully scrape it with a second teaspoon into the hot oil. Start with 2 balls of dough to adjust the temperature, you might have to turn the heat down to medium or a little bit lower. The pastry has to cook for 4-6 minutes for the inside to be cooked through. The outside should be golden and not dark brown. If they become dark after 2-3 minutes, turn the heat down. Transfer the cooked zeppoli to the lined baking dish and continue frying the remaining dough. Let them cool completely.
Using a sharp knife, cut a wide slit in the top part of each zeppoli and fill with a spoonful of the vanilla ricotta. Top with 2-3 berries, sprinkle with icing sugar, and serve. Once the zeppoli are filled, they should be enjoyed within the next hour as the ricotta soaks the pastry.