Saint Joseph’s Day (Festa di San Giuseppe) is celebrated in Italy on March 19.
Italy double dips and combines this ancient and religious tradition with Father’s Day – La Festa del Papà – the feast (celebration) for father, the event imported from America in the early 20th century. In the USA it is held on the third Sunday of June.
Saints’ name days are more significant in the south of Italy. My father, who was born in Ragusa but lived in Trieste, used to receive phone calls from his family who lived in Sicily wishing him well, “auguri” on March 19.
San Giuseppe was reputed to be a humble carpenter who looked after his family (Mary and Jesus) so it is easy to see why the Catholic church has made him the patron saint of carpenters, workers, protector of the church and of fathers, but he is also patron saint of the poor and, more mysteriously, of pastry cooks.
I have partly explained (to myself) how pastry cooks fits under Saint Joseph’s umbrella by thinking about what happens in Sicily. The feast of Saint Joseph although in Lent (a time of fasting in the Catholic liturgy) also marks the end of the long unproductive season of winter. His feast day is close to the equinox and since pagan times spring has been celebrated big time in various ways.
Wheat (grains, seeds and legumes) were unequivocally the metaphorical seeds of life and through germination and regeneration they invoke the powers of fertility. In many parts of Sicily there are banquets to celebrate the bounty of the harvest (known as La Tavola di San Giuseppe – Saint Joseph’s Table). The main food is a collection of breads of odd shapes and sizes, many sprinkled with seeds. The food and breads on display were once shared and offered to the poor, now they are shared within the community.
Fried sweets are traditionally made in Sicily on Saint Joseph’s day. Sfinci (made with flour) and Crispeddi di Risu (made with rice) seem to be the most common and as in all Sicilian recipes there are many local variations. Sfinci are the most common and are found in the north, south and west of Sicily; some are filled with custard cream or ricotta.
In my copy of Maria Consoli Sardo’s book Cucina Nostra (1978) there is a recipe for sfinci made with semolina. She also provides a recipe for sfinci made with rice without yeast. I like her recipes because they seem genuinely authentic – uncomplicated and, as I imagine, an example of cucina povera (poor kitchen) as cooked by many Sicilians especially those living away from the larger cities on the land (see her recipe below).
Crispeddi di risu are more common in the east of Sicily, from Messina in the north; Catania on the central coast and Syracuse in the south east. I have found many recipes for crispeddi and all involve cooking rice in milk or milk and water and adding eggs or flour. Some contain yeast and others are very complicated and involve forming balls of the cooked rice and dipping them into batter before deep-frying them.
Maria Consoli Sardo calls her recipe Sfinci Di Risu (Fritelle Di Riso, in Italian).
I have used Arborio rice.
200g rice, ½ litre of milk, 200g of flour, lard for frying (how else can you make them crisp?), sugar and cinnamon for sprinkling.
Boil rice in water (does not say how much water, I used 500 ml= ½ litre. There is no mention of salt but this is common sense, as a Sicilian you would know to add a pinch.)
Halfway through cooking, add milk and finish cooking (it will have the consistency of risotto…having said this, my risotto is all’onda, ie, in waves … it should have some moisture).
Place the cooked rice in a bowl and leave it for 24 hours, add flour, mix well and let it rest. Spread the mixture out (such as on a marble slab) and after 2 hours cut it into batons and fry them in plenty of lard. After they have been fried, sprinkle them with sugar and cinnamon.
My variation to the above: I used extra virgin olive oil to fry them and dressed them with Chestnut Honey and cinnamon. (I usually have Orange Flower Honey (Sicilian) in my pantry but I have run out! The Chestnut Honey however was great!)
This second recipe for crispeddi di risu is adapted from Giuseppe Coria’s Profumi di Sicilia, Il libro della cucina Siciliana. It is also a simple recipe and this one has yeast. Judging from his quantities Signor Coria must have always cooked for large numbers!
1 kg of rice
1 litre of milk
1 litre of boiling water
½ tsp of salt
2 tbs of sugar
500 g of plain flour
150 g of fresh yeast (or equivalent) dissolved in ½ cup warm water
grated zest of 2 oranges and 2 lemons,
honey, cinnamon powder to coat.
Mix the milk with water, add salt and sugar and add the rice. Bring to the boil, reduce heat and simmer on low heat stirring occasionally until the rice has absorbed all the liquid and looks like a risotto.
Cool, mix in the flour and yeast. Add the grated peel. Mix it well, cover, and let rise for 2-4 hours.
Shape the rice with a spoon and slide them into the hot oil.
When golden, place them on paper to drain for about 30 seconds and then dress them with honey and cinnamon powder.
FESTA DI SAN GIUSEPPE (SAINT JOSEPH) and sweets called Sfinci di San Giuseppe
SAINT JOSEPH’S FEAST DAY (La Festa di San Giuseppe) 19 March