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The delicious history and making of the sfinga

Just because these delicious fritters are traditionally associated with St Joseph’s feast doesn't mean you can't try your hands at making sfineg any other day

These pastry fritters are sweet treats traditionally enjoyed on St Joseph’s Day (Photo: James Bianchi/MediaToday)
These pastry fritters are sweet treats traditionally enjoyed on St Joseph’s Day (Photo: James Bianchi/MediaToday)
Celebrated two days after the feast of St Patrick, St Joseph’s feast comes and goes without parades. But, on certain dining tables, thousands enjoy the seasonal worship of St Joseph’s fritters, the sfineg – which are not zeppole, as they are known in Italy (even though the debate on their rightful name continues).

The zeppola, distantly related to the grease-and-air staple of countless street fairs, is a wobbly four-story structure of fried, swirled dough and vanilla custard, topped with sour-sweet amarena cherries. The sfinga is a lump of egg-based dough deep fried, split open, piled like a double-stuffed baked potato with ricotta cheese, sugar and chocolate chips (the same mixture that fills the cannoli) and often crowned with a slice of candied orange rind, a maraschino cherry and a splash of green crushed nuts.

Regional loyalties toward one or the other are fierce, but many in Sicily – and Malta too therefore – believe zeppole to be a sop to mainland Italians too timid to embrace the joys of ricotta. Zeppole can also be savoury, and consist of fried bread dough often filled with anchovy. In parts of Calabria, the anchovy or a sultana variety are consumed on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.

Never heard of sfineg? You are missing out on something crazy delicious. These pastry fritters are sweet treats traditionally enjoyed on St Joseph’s Day, celebrated in the western church each year on 19 March and a common staple in southern Italy and Malta. 

The gooey mess of simple dough, akin to pate choux with a rising agent, boiling water, salt and butter, and flour, thickens quickly on the heat. Eggs, one at a time, add richness to the dough. Maybe also some vanilla and whiskey. In the fryer, the dough takes on a life of its own, flipping themselves over and over again, until they’re just about done. You flip them once again, right before the end, and they’re done. 

If done right the result is a pastry puff, hollow but crispy-skinned. Drained, they are finally dusted with powdered sugar, and upon cooling comes the sweetened ricotta with orange and lemon zest, lightened with whipped cream, and topped with honey and crushed almonds.

Busy Bee in Msida will have prepared and sold around 26,000 sfineg this week alone. The Friggieri family have been preparing this specialty for the feast of St Joseph for decades and – just like their cannoli – the sfineg have become a must-have for many Maltese.

Fancy trying your hand at the sfinga? We got you covered

Ingredients (Serves: 10 )
  • For the sweet choux pastry 


100g butter 

250ml water 

2 teaspoons fine caster sugar 

1 pinch salt 

125g plain flour 

2 large eggs 

zest of 1 lemon, finely chopped 

zest of 1 orange, finely chopped 

1 teaspoon honey 

1 teaspoon marmalade oil for deep frying 
  • For the ricotta mixture 


600g ricotta cheese 

100g icing sugar 

3 teaspoons anisette liqueur 

60g dark chocolate, finely chopped 

80g chopped almonds 

60g chopped candied peel honey as needed 

Method
  1. For the choux pastry: In a pan, melt the butter in water together with sugar and salt, on low heat. When butter is melted, bring mixture to the boil.
  2. Remove from heat and add the flour, mixing just enough to incorporate into the liquid.
  3. Return the pan to a low heat and stir gently until the mixture leaves the side of the pan (about 1 minute).
  4. Once again, remove the mixture from heat and allow to cool.
  5. In the meantime, lightly beat the egg and add the finely chopped lemon and orange zest.
  6. When mixture is cool enough, slowly incorporate the eggs into the mixture, beating with a wooden spoon.
  7. Add enough eggs for the mixture to be glossy and flow back when pushed.
  8. Heat the oil in a frying pan or deep fryer over medium high heat, and deep fry spoonfuls of the mixture until evenly browned all over. Remove to drain on kitchen paper.
  9. For the ricotta mixture: Beat the ricotta with the icing sugar and anisette liqueur until you have a light creamy mixture.
  10. Add the dark chocolate, 60g of the almonds and candied peel and mix well. Reserve the rest of the almonds.
  11. For the assembly: Slit the deep fried pastries and coat with honey, then dip in the reserved almonds. Pipe or spoon the ricotta mixture into the pastries and serve while crispy.


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