Among Italian desserts, zeppole can be confused with sfinge, because they’re both essentially cream puffs. The big difference is that zeppole tend to have a custardlike filling, while sfinge gets fancied up with sweetened ricotta, like cannoli filling.
Whether that difference is canonical apparently depends on what part of Italy your people hail from.
Growing up in a Sicilian family, Mary Ann Giordano got to enjoy sfinge, fried puffs with sweetened ricotta or whipped cream filling, as “sfinge di San Giuseppe,” referring to their traditional appearance at St. Joseph’s Day tables.
But the simple fritters were too good to limit to feast-day menus. “In my family, we made them often,” she said. At her restaurant, GiGi’s Cucina Povera (981 Kenmore Ave., Kenmore, 877-8788) they’re on the menu every day. It’s four to an order, for $4.95.
Sfinge are made from a simple dough, akin to pate choux with a rising agent. “You start with boiling water, salt and butter, then whisk in the flour and baking powder,” Giordano said. “It’s actually better to dump it all in at once.”
The gooey mess thickens quickly on the heat. Then you stir in the eggs, one at a time. They add richness to the dough. Giordano also adds vanilla and a little whiskey.
The dough is dropped by the spoonful into a fryer. “If you have enough oil, once you release sfinge into the hot oil, they kind of have a life of their own,” she said. “They flip themselves, over and over again, until they’re just about done.” You flip them once again, right before the end, and they’re done. The frying process takes about four minutes.
If they’re done right the result is a pastry puff, hollow but crispy-skinned. The fritters are left to drain and dusted with powdered sugar. Once they cool off they soften a bit. Giordano adds sweetened ricotta with orange and lemon zest, lightened with whipped cream.
“In the restaurant, we’re cooking the sfinge to order, so we serve the filling on the side. They’re warm, and the filling would just melt.”