A couple years ago, my husband came home from work one day and asked, “Have you had a zeppole? They’re so good!” I had, in fact, never had a zeppole nor heard of them. So over the next couple of weeks, we went on a bit of an Italian bakery run trying to find zeppole for me to try.
Turns out zeppole are basically Italian doughnuts, and they come in many different forms: baked, fried, filled, and unfilled. After sampling a variety of zeppole, we realized our favorite were the Zeppole di San Giuseppe variety, which are basically doughnut-shaped cream puffs. Traditionally these are eaten to celebrate St. Joseph’s Day (a Catholic holiday in March), which is pretty much the only time you can find them in actual Italian bakeries in our area. But they’re too delicious to not be eaten the rest of year; and since they’re made from good ol’ choux, they’re easy enough to pull off at home!
A few notes:
Traditionally, this style of zeppole are garnished with canned sour cherries. This is delicious, but if you don’t have any you can just use some fresh fruit or a thick jam.
If you like a lighter/softer filling, you can whip up some heavy cream (I’d probably do 1/2 cup or so) and fold it into the pastry cream before filling the zeppole.
Zeppole are best consumed within 4 hours of assembling, but all the components can be prepared ahead of time: the pastry cream can be refrigerated up to 3 days and the choux rings can be baked and stored at room temperature for a couple of days (or frozen for longer storage). If the pastry softens during storage, recrisp by baking uncovered at 300°F for 5-8 minutes. Cool completely before filling.
Fresh fruit, canned sour cherries, or additional thick jam, to finish
Powdered sugar, to finish (optional)
For the vanilla pastry cream:
1 1/2 c whole milk
1/2 c heavy cream
100g granulated sugar, divided
40g custard powder (or cornstarch)
4 large egg yolks
2 tsp vanilla extract
28g unsalted butter, at room temperature
Make the vanilla pastry cream: Place a sieve over a heatproof container. Combine the whole milk and heavy cream in a medium saucepan along with 80g of the sugar. Whisk to combine.
In a medium bowl, place the remaining 20g granulated sugar and sift in the custard powder or cornstarch. Pour in a splash of the milk-cream mixture and whisk to combine (this helps prevent lumpy custard). Add a bit more of the milk mixture and whisk until smooth. Whisk in the egg yolks.
Bring the remaining milk-cream mixture to a simmer over medium heat. Once it has reached a simmer, remove from the heat and slowly pour into the egg mixture, whisking constantly. Pour the mixture back into the saucepan. Cook over medium to medium high heat, whisking continuously.
As soon as the mixture thickens and large bubbles appear, turn the heat to low and continue whisking on the heat for 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and strain into the prepared container. Whisk in the butter, followed by the vanilla extract.
Place a piece of plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the custard to keep a skin from forming. Cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate until chilled (at least three hours, or up to 3 days).
Bake the zeppole: Preheat the oven to 425F with a rack in the middle. On a large piece of parchment using a cookie cutter or other round object, trace about ten 2 1/2 inch circles. Space the circles at least 2 inches apart. Place the parchment on a large baking sheet (with the tracing on the underside so you don’t get pen/pencil onto your zeppole). Transfer the choux dough to a large piping bag fitted with an open star/French piping tip. Pipe rings of choux using the tracings as a guide. After you’ve piped all the bases, go back and pipe another, smaller ring on the top inside edge of the bottom ring. (If you have any dough left, you can pipe little cream puffs to use it up.) Dust the rings with icing sugar.
Bake the pastry for 10 minutes, then turn down the oven to 375F and continue baking until the rings are puffed and a deep golden brown — about another 20-30 minutes. Rotate the baking sheet after about 30 minutes total baking time — avoid opening the oven door any sooner, or your pastry may collapse. After the rings are finished but still hot, pierce the bottoms with a skewer or paring knife and return to the turned-off oven for 10 minutes to allow the steam to escape and the insides to dry out (prop the oven door open with a wooden spoon). Transfer rings to a cooling rack and allow them to cool completely before filling.
Assemble the zeppole: Whisk the chilled pastry cream to loosen and transfer to a piping bag fitted with an open star tip.
Using a sharp serrated knife, trim off the top third of the choux rings and set aside. Remove any soft bits from inside the shells.
Spread a thin layer of jam on the bottom of the rings. Pipe the cream on top. Place the tops back on and pipe a dollop of cream in the centers. Garnish with a sour cherry, fresh fruit, or a dab of jam. Dust with powdered sugar if desired. Serve immediately, or refrigerate for up to 4 hours. (The pastry will eventually start to soften, so it’s best to fill the zeppole shortly before eating.)
I’m relatively new to choux. I never had much interest in cream puffs and eclairs, because most of the ones I’d eaten before were just doughy puffs filled with whipped cream and unceremoniously dusted with icing sugar. I’d much prefer a slice of pie or cake, and being lactose-intolerant I’d rather suffer for eating ice cream over whipped cream.
But earlier this year I made choux pastry for the first time and I realized, this is really fun. Maybe I’m a little weird (ok, not maybe), but I find making choux very relaxing. I enjoy watching the dough transform from a curdled mess into a smooth paste and trying to pipe uniform shells. And it’s super satisfying seeing those doughy lines transform into light, airy shells ready to be filled with whatever your heart desires (though my 2-year-old will gladly gobble them up plain).
When the Maple Guild sent me a bottle of their organic bourbon barrel aged maple syrup to try, I thought an eclair would be a fun way to highlight the pure deliciousness of maple. Maple is definitely the star of this dessert, so please use the best quality syrup you can find!
A few notes:
The ingredient list and instructions may look long, but you can easily break the work up over a few days. I suggest making the pastry cream and praline first, as those can both be held in the fridge for a few days. Make the choux the day you plan to serve these eclairs.
If you’re new to choux pastry, I highly recommend reading this tutorial for choux tips! This is the recipe I’ve had best success using, though I’ve made a couple of changes (salt content and baking temperatures).
I typically make pastry cream with whole milk, but because we’re using a liquid sweetener (maple syrup), I’ve used part heavy cream for a thicker final texture. If you use all milk the final product may be a little looser and you’ll need to spoon the cream into the shells rather than pipe it.
I really like adding a crunchy element to eclairs (in this case, the praline) to add texture. If you’re pressed for time, I think a sprinkling of crushed pretzels would work well — something with a bit of salt to balance out the sweetness of the maple. If you go the pretzel route, add it right before serving or it’ll get soggy.
Makes 12 4-inch eclairs
For the Choux Pastry:
1 tsp granulated sugar
1/2 tsp salt
100g bread flour, sifted
150g eggs (about 3 large), room temperature and lightly beaten
Icing sugar, for dusting
For the Maple Pastry Cream:
1 c heavy cream
1 c whole milk
1/3 c maple syrup
4 large egg yolks
25g custard powder (or cornstarch)
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/4 tsp maple extract (optional)
28g unsalted butter, softened
For the Almond Praline:
150g toasted almonds, chopped
150g granulated sugar
Flaky sea salt
For the Maple Cream Cheese Glaze:
4 oz. cream cheese, softened
4 Tbsp maple syrup
Pinch of salt
1 tsp cream, plus more if needed
For the choux pastry:
Preheat oven to 425F. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper. Use a ruler to draw twelve 4-inch lines, spaced by about 2 inches, to serve as a piping guide. Flip the parchment over so you don’t get pen/marker on your pastry.
Combine the water, milk, butter, sugar, and salt in a medium saucepan. Bring to a strong simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally. As soon as the mixture is simmering, remove the pot from the heat and dump the flour in all at once. Stir vigorously with a wooden spoon or spatula until the flour is completely incorporated.
Return the pot to low heat and continue stirring until the mixture forms a ball and a thin film forms on the bottom of the pot, 1-2 minutes. An instant-read thermometer should read 170F. Immediately transfer dough to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment.
Mix the dough on low speed for a couple of minutes to release the steam. An instant-read thermometer should read no warmer than 140F (any hotter and you’ll cook the eggs when adding them!). When the dough has cooled sufficiently and with the mixer still on low, add about half of the eggs. Mix until the egg has been completely absorbed, then add more egg about a tablespoon at a time, mixing completely before adding more. When you’ve added most of the egg, check the dough consistency — a finger dragged through it should leave a trough and a peak of dough should form where the finger is lifted. Once the dough passes this test, it’s ready. (You may not need all the egg.)
Transfer the dough to a piping bag fitted with an open star tip. Pipe the eclairs onto the prepared sheet. Once all the eclairs are piped, dust them with icing sugar.
Bake the eclairs for 10 minutes, then turn down the oven to 375F and continue baking until the shells are puffed and a deep golden brown — about another 20-30 minutes. Rotate the baking sheet after about 30 minutes total baking time — avoid opening the oven door any sooner, or your shells may collapse. After the shells are finished but still hot, pierce the bottoms with a skewer or paring knife and return to the turned-off oven for 10 minutes to allow the steam to escape and the insides to dry out (prop the oven door open with a wooden spoon). Transfer shells to a cooling rack and allow them to cool completely before glazing and filling.
For the maple pastry cream:
Combine the milk, cream, and maple syrup in a medium saucepan.
Place the egg yolks in a medium bowl and whisk to combine. Whisk in a ladleful of the milk mixture.
Bring the milk mixture just to the boil over medium heat. Meanwhile, sift the custard powder and flour over the yolk mixture, and whisk until smooth.
When the milk is just at boiling, remove from the heat. Add a ladleful of the hot milk mixture to the yolks, whisking continuously. Pour the remaining milk mixture into the yolks in a slow, steady stream, continuing to whisk constantly. Once all the milk has been added, transfer the entire mixture back to the saucepan over low heat. Whisk constantly until the mixture thickens and begins to bubble. Continue cooking over low heat for one minute after the mixture starts bubbling, then strain into a clean container. Whisk in the extracts and butter. Press a piece of plastic wrap against the surface of the custard and cool to room temperature, then refrigerate until cold before using.
For the almond praline:
Line a sheet pan with parchment or a Silpat. Have a silicon spatula, your chopped almonds, and flaky sea salt ready to go.
Put the sugar in a heavy saucepan and turn the heat to medium. Cook without stirring (occasionally swirling the pan is fine), until the sugar melts and eventually turns a deep amber color. Once the sugar is caramelized, remove the pan from the heat and immediately stir in the almonds to coat. Quickly pour the mixture onto the prepared sheet pan and spread it as thinly as possible with your spatula (don’t touch, trust me — it’ll hurt). Immediately sprinkle with a generous amount of flaky sea salt. Allow to cool completely before breaking into pieces, either with a mallet or food processor. Store leftovers in the fridge or freezer; or you can grind the remainder into praline paste.
For the maple cream cheese glaze:
Combine the cream cheese, maple syrup, and salt in a food processor and process until smooth. Add cream a teaspoon at a time until the glaze is thick and spreadable.
To assemble the maple eclairs:
Remove the pastry cream from the fridge and whisk to loosen. Transfer the cream to a pastry bag fitted with an open star tip (alternatively, you can just spoon the cream in).
Using a sharp serrated knife, trim off the top third of the eclair shells and set aside. Remove any soft bits from inside the shells. Pipe the cream into the bottom of the shells.
Spread roughly a tablespoon of glaze onto the top of each shell. Place the tops back on the filled shells and garnish with almond praline. Refrigerate until serving — these really are best within a few hours of filling, though if you have to hold them longer wait until the last minute to add the praline.