by Gordon Nary
St. Joseph was not a popular saint in the early church which may be due in part to the lack of miracles attributed to him. However, that changed in the middle ages when he was invoked for help by the Sicilians who were starving due to a major famine due several years shortage of rain. In return for his help, the Sicilians promised to celebrate his feast day with food that would be shared with everyone in thanksgiving ;The prayers apparently helped since the rains came and there was a near miraculous crop of fava beans that was credited in saving thousands of lives
This agricultural phenomenon is celebrated on Joseph's feast day (La Festa di San Giuseppe) in Sicily each year with special foods often featuring a large bowl of stewed fava beans or a fava bean soup (Maccu di San Giuseppe), generally followed with a glass or two of chianti which may be the source of Dr. Hannibal Lector's memorable quote in Silence of the Lambs.
When the late 19th and early 20th century Sicilian immigrants into Louisiana, Texas, California, Colorado and New York, they brought the tradition of the tavola di San Giuseppe (St. Joseph's Table) with them, an extravagant smorgasbord of meatless Lenten specialties featuring fava beans and many other traditional St. Joseph's day celebratory dishes. The tavola di San Giuseppe is celebrated at home as well as in Sicilian and Italian parishes where the food is contributed by members of the community and to which everyone is invited free of charge. The practice started as a commemoration of St. Joseph's role as patron of the poor. Before the participants are permitted to celebrate at the the table, the food is blessed and the saint's blessings are invoked.
The traditions for the St. Joseph's Day Table vary with each Sicilian and Italian city and village and Sicilian/Italian-American community or parish. However, many of the dishes are traditional and several of them honor the saint whose feast is celebrated, including ravioli di San Giuseppe (ravioli filled with marmalade or marzipan), lasagne di San Giuseppi (a meatless lasagna with grated cheese and butter on the top to form a thick crust), pappardelli di San Giuseppe (fried noodles with walnuts, sugar, and breadcrumbs), pane di San Giuseppe (a gigantic loaf of sweet bread often flavored with anise seeds, usually used as the centerpiece of the tavola di San Giuseppe), the excruciating delicious sfinge di San Giuseppe (St. Joseph's ricotta-filled cream puffs), and the addictive zeppoli or bignè di San Giuseppi (fried doughnuts fritters with a flavored custard or ricotta filling).
Fried chou pastries were often made by nuns for various religious holidays. In France, the fried puff balls are called pets de nonne(nuns' balls) the popular term for them during the nineteenth century. However, in the eighteenth century they were called pets de putain (whores' balls). Nobody seems to know exactly when or why, these little pastries got religion.
Here are recipes for several of these celebratory dishes. which you can enjoy while watching Joseph of Nazareth (2000) (TV)
Pane di San Giuseppe (St. Joseph's Bread)
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour 2 TB butter 1&1/2 tsp active dry yeast 3 TB anise 2 TB honey 1/2 cup golden raisins 2/3 cup hot water 1 TB cornmeal 1/2 tsp salt
1. Combine 1&1/2 cups of the flour, yeast, honey, water, salt, butter and aniseed in a large bowl. Mix thoroughly. Add raisins. Beat for another 10 minutes, adding flour until the dough begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl.
2. Turn out on a lightly floured surface. Knead for 8 to 10 minutes, until dough is smooth and elastic, adding flour as necessary to prevent stickiness.
3. Lightly oil a large bowl. Place dough in bowl and turn to coat on all sides.
4. Cover with plastic wrap and place in a warm, draft-free place until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour. Grease a baking sheet and sprinkle with cornmeal or line one with kitchen parchment. Punch down the dough.
5. Shape into a loaf. Place the loaf on the baking sheet and make three or four 1/2-inch diagonal slashes on the top.
6. Cover with a tea towel and let rise until doubled in bulk, about 30 minutes.
7. Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Mist loaves with water before baking and twice during baking.
8. Bake about 40 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.
Maccu di San Giuseppe (St. Joseph's Bean Soup)
1 lb shelled dry fava beans 1 medium-sized onion 1/2 lb chickpeas 6 sun-dried tomatoes 1 lb dry kidney beans Salt & pepper to taste 2 bunches spinach, washed and chopped 3 quarts vegetable stock 1 oz fennel seeds
1. Soak the fava beans, chick peas, and kidney beans n lightly salted water the night before. (Lentils cook quickly and don't need to be presoaked.
2. The next day drain them, and set all the legumes to boil in 3 quarts of vegetable stock, adding the onion, tomatoes, and spinach after about two hours.
3. Continue simmering for another two hours by which time it will be ready. Check seasoning, and serve.
Zeppole di San Giuseppe (St. Joseph's Doughnuts)
Doughnut Ingredients Filling Ingredients
1 cup water 1 lb ricotta cheese 1/3 cup butter 2 TB grated orange zest 1 cup flour 1 TB grated lemon zest 2 TB grated orange zest 3/4 cup confectioners sugar 2 TB sugar 3 TB Grand Marnier dash of salt 4 eggs Canola oil for frying
Makes 2 dozen zeppole
Sfinge di San Giuseppe (St. Joseph's Cream Puffs)
Cream Puff Ingredients Filling Ingredients
1/3 cup sweet (unsalted) butter 2 cups ricotta cheese 1/8 tsp salt 1/3 cup grated sweet chocolate 1 cup boiling water 1 TB grated orange rind 1 cup flour 1/2 tsp almond extract 4 eggs 1/2 cup Confectioner's sugar 1 TB sugar 1 TB grated lemon rind 1 TB grated orange rind
1. Preheat oven to 450º F.
2. Mix filling ingredients thoroughly in a bowl. Set aside
3. Add butter and salt to boiling water; stir over medium heat until mixture boils. Lower heat, add flour all at once. Stir vigorously until mixture leaves the sides of the pan. Remove from heat and add 1 egg at a time. Beat in sugar and rinds after beating in eggs.
4. Shape on an ungreased cookie sheet using 1 TB per puff. Bake for 20 minutes. Reduce temperature to 350º F and bake for 20 minutes more. Remove and cool. Slice off top, add filling, and replace top.
Makes 18 sfinge