Winner of the James Beard/ KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year 2000 and Winner of the Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food 2000.
September 30, 2023
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Mangia Bene

Zeppole di San Giuseppe, a fried dough specialty made for the festival of St. Joseph from Enna, Sicily are loved throughout southern Italy. They are very much associated with the same festival in Naples. The origin of zeppole, or zippula in Sicilian, comes from the Arabic zalābiyya meaning fried soft dough. Even today, in Egypt, they are called zalābiyya. A traveler to Tunisia of the Middle Ages was cAbdalbasiṭ ibn Ḥalīl, an Egyptian, whose two manuscripts detailing his journeys from 1460 to 1470 in Tunisia are in the Vatican Library. In Tunis he ate a Spanish cheese cake called mujabbana and gives a recipe:

Knead the fresh cheese with your hands as you would dough. Carefully knead in the semolina. Once it has the consistency of a dough of our zalābiyya, or a rather thick consistency, then take a piece and spread it out delicately in the palm of your hand. Place a piece of cheese in the center and close it up to make a bonbon. Flatten it a little bit and deep-fry in oil. Remove and sprinkle on powdered sugar and a little powdered cumin.

The medieval Arab zalābiyya, a kind of deep-fried doughnut sprinkled with sugar, exists today, both with that name and many others, including sifanj. Sifanj, coming from the Arabic word for “sponge,” is a kind of very soft yeasted doughnut made in North Africa that is allowed to rise more than usual to make it airy, and is served with honey or sugar. This sifanj exists in Sicily, too, where it is called sfinci (or sfìncia) the word also derived from the Arabic. The thirteenth-century notary Adamo de Citella of Palermo tells us they were sold by a sfingiarius. This medieval doughnut was also described in the fourteenth-century Sicilian vocabulary of Angelo Senisio, who tells us that sfingia is a fried bread that the common people also call crispella. In Algeria, they may also be called khafaf, in Tunisia, yūyū.