It’s not usual to hear someone say they have a sweet tooth. I laugh every time I hear that phrase because the person who said it has no idea how they’ve been cheated. One tooth? You poor dear. I don’t have just one tooth inclined to sweets; I have an entire mouthful. My love of sweets goes back a long time. Now that I’m no longer in possession of a twenty-five-year-old metabolism, I must choose indulgences wisely. I’m the person who always reads the dessert menu first when dining out. I’ll happily order a huge salad for dinner, knowing that a sinful slice of something is going to be served afterwards.
I grew up in a big Italian family; it’s not a big stretch that I love dessert. You might assume (incorrectly) that my pre-disposition for sweets results from a decades-long baking apprenticeship in the family kitchen watching my elders create heavenly desserts. Not true. While there were some kick-ass chefs in my family, not one of them was particularly inclined to making desserts. There were, however, a few exceptions.
My great-grandmother, “Nanny,” was a legend in our family. Barely five feet in her church shoes, she had a personality as tall as the Empire State Building. A devoted wife, mother, handyman, master chef, and expert gardener, there were a few times a year she added to her resume. Nanny’s dessert repertoire, may have been limited to just a few items, but there is one particular item I still dream about.
Say the word zeppole and my mouth immediately starts watering. Never heard of zeppole? You’re not alone. Unless you’re from an Italian family, or spent a lot of time with one, zepploes might as well be unicorns. The best way to describe this heavenly treat? Think about the best doughnut hole you’ve ever had—crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside—then take it to a whole other level. A zeppole is a soft, fluffy fried pillow of deliciousness rolled in white granulated sugar. (More on this provocative statement later.) Despite being fried, Nanny’s zeppole never tasted oily or left your fingers drippy. The sugar trail left on your clothing was the only casualty. You could eat a ton of them and still have room for more.
We never knew when Nanny would serve zeppole. She made them on holidays (usually), on your birthday (sometimes) or other special occasion (maybe), there was no guarantee when they would appear. I had zero patience waiting around for my next opportunity for zeppole, so I learned to look for clues. Anytime I walked through Nanny’s spotless kitchen, I knew something great was in the works. When I’d spot her cavernous white porcelain bowl with the black trim sitting in front of the radiator draped with a dishtowel, a work of art was in process.
Looking back on it now, it makes sense. One cannot just frivolously decide to make zeppole out of the blue; one must plan—if you want to do it correctly. If you’re satiating a spur-of-the-moment craving, of course you could use—perish the thought—pre-made dough, but why on earth would you want to do something as crazy as that? (Did da Vinci use a paint-by-numbers kit to create the Mona Lisa? I think not.) Dough is the critical component of zeppole. Bad dough equals bad zeppole. Nanny’s dough was a gift from heaven, but that gift was hours in the making.
Watching Nanny make zeppole dough was like peeking behind the curtain and witnessing a wizard at work. She didn’t use a recipe card or an electric mixer—she followed her heart, did the best she could, and sprinkled in lots of love. When the sticky, robust ball of goodness in her hands pleased Nanny, she rubbed the inside of her porcelain bowl with a drizzle of olive oil, dropped the dough in, covered with a towel, and set in front of the radiator. As Nanny tended to other things (including all of us who popped in and out), she’d punch the dough, replace it in front of the radiator, then rinse and repeat until she achieved perfection.
That evening as dinner came to a close, the air buzzed with electricity. Even though we’d all just consumed a huge gourmet meal, the prospect of zeppole turned my family into a pack of rabid hounds. Everyone lingered in the dining room as Nanny disappeared into the kitchen. When the scent of bubbling oil filled the air, everyone moved a little closer to the action. We all wanted to be the first to receive a piece of manna and were willing to fight for the privilege. The adults at least maintained some decorum. The kids were another story. A slugfest inevitably broke out among us as we vied for the most coveted job in zeppole production—the bag shaker. Let me explain.
Preparing zeppole dough is a solo endeavor; bringing them to completion is a two-person job. Nanny, the master chef, took charge of the frying. Watching her at the stove was akin to seeing a conductor preside over an orchestra. Flawless. With one hand inside the porcelain bowl, she broke off the perfect size piece of dough and dropped it gently into the oil while her other hand tended to those already swimming in liquid gold. The only kitchen tool she used was a slotted spoon to turn and then remove the fat chunks of fried dough. She didn’t use a timer or a thermometer. Those were for amateurs. Nanny just knew.
When the zeppole reached golden perfection, we plunged them into a paper bag full of sugar. This is the point in my story where controversy sets in. Most Italians who adore this treat enjoy it coated in white powdered sugar—not my family. Nanny, a perpetual rebel, coated her zeppole in white granulated sugar. I don’t know why she chose to do this. If I had to guess, it was probably due to her Depression-era “use what you have” training. She always had jars of white sugar lined up on her pantry shelves. Why buy powdered sugar when granulated was plentiful?
Now it was time for the final step. The lucky person (most of the time, me) elected as the shaker would triumphantly raise the paper bag to shoulder level and shake the hell out of it. A vigorous shaking was mandatory—how else could you ensure the golden pillows were evenly coated? So what if you stomped around Nanny’s kitchen wielding a paper sack as long as the dessert was good? And it was.
I know it sounds crazy; how can someone wax this nostalgic about a piece of fried dough? It was more than the marriage of flour, salt and whatever else was in it—it was the culmination of family, food, tradition, and love in one sugar-coated bite. No one in the family ever made zeppole besides Nanny. When she got on in years, in her 90s, and was unable to make them (), there were no more zeppoles. Since there was no recipe for her dough, no one When my kids were little, they loved hearing the story of Nanny’s zeppole. Recognizing the gleam in their dessert-loving eyes. Wonder where they got that from? It was clear I had to make my own zeppole. Big mistake. Epic, actually. Let me start by saying I am a solid, self-taught baker, and yet my attempt at making zeppole failed miserably. Perhaps being over-confident was my downfall. I made bread a time or two and assumed it wouldn’t be that hard to make zeppole dough. It was.
With recipes I’d found online resting on the counter, I dove in with enthusiasm. Hours later, I produced a mountain of odd-shaped, tough orbs that could have taken someone’s eye out if lobbed at them. Shaking off my failure, I did the unthinkable and made another attempt using pre-made dough. It ended up being another blow to my fragile baking psyche. The scent of failure stuck to every inch of my body. I was awash in culinary shame; so was my kitchen. My stove and backsplash glimmered with grease splatters. So did the floor and several cabinet doors. The sink overflowed with an assortment of utensils and bowls all caked in cement-like dough. I failed to produce a beloved piece of my childhood. Game over.
As parents, we learn early on to roll with the punches. When our children face disappointment, we teach them how to make lemonade out of lemons. Perhaps I could have made a paperweight out of my dough gone wrong? I couldn’t find a teachable moment in this kitchen catastrophe. It devastated me. Worse, I felt like an insult to my heritage. Without zeppole, there would be a critical missing in my children’s upbringing. They wouldn’t be able to experience the things I did. And I wanted that for them with all my heart. Were they upset by this? Hell, no. Half-way into the zeppole-making process, both of my kids abandoned the kitchen for cartoons and Legos in the living room. The only person bothered was me.
As I stood there looking around my grease-covered kitchen, I made an executive decision that cleaning could wait an hour or two. I packed my kids into the car, and we headed off to Dunkin’ Donuts. Huddled around the tiny table, we laughed at my foible, sipped hot chocolate, and nibbled on doughnut holes that were nothing, repeat, nothing like Nanny’s zeppole. They didn’t melt in my mouth, but as I took the bag of Munchkins and recreated my mad shaking skills to a delighted audience, I checked off the boxes in my head—I followed my heart, did the best I could, and sprinkled in lots of love. Just like Nanny.