The earliest memory of my fascination with cooking involves zeppole. I was very young, probably four years old. My parents and I, from Brooklyn, were visiting my great grandmother in New York’s Little Italy during the Festival of San Gennaro. We left her apartment and went down to the streets to enjoy the celebration.
Befitting an Italian festival, there were crowds in the streets, music in the air, and delicious scents everywhere. A street vendor frying zeppole caught my attention. I stopped to watch him cook his fare while my parents continued to stroll down the street. I was captivated by this amazing process where balls of dough dropped into hot oil instantly turned into golden puffy pillows. What magic in the hot oil caused the pale blobs to metamorphose into those beautiful billowy puffs? I was mesmerized.
After their oily bath, they were drained, dusted with powdered sugar, and sold by the bagful to hungry passersby. I was so engrossed by the cooking process it hadn’t even occurred to me that I should want to taste one. As I continued to gaze at the tawny clouds dancing in the rolling oil, a large hand thrust a freshly cooked zeppola in my face. I looked up into the eyes of the zeppole vendor. He said something to me in Italian and his hand emphasized that I should take this zeppola from him, a gift.
I accepted the warm fritter and took a bite. The crust was thin and delicate and lightly sweetened with fine powdered sugar. The soft interior melted in my mouth. My pleasure must have been obvious because he smiled at me. I suddenly felt very self-conscious and shy and ran away to catch up with my parents, the treasured zeppola clutched in my hand.
My next encounter with zeppole was several years later at a family gathering at my Auntie Antoinette’s house on Long Island. All my cousins and siblings and I had been herded there to watch a major television event, The Wizard of Oz. The broadcast of this movie on television was quite a big deal, VCRs not yet having been invented. While we watched the movie my aunt fried batches of fresh zeppole for us.
As I munched on the warm pillows of fried dough, my mind was focused more on the zeppole than on Dorothy and Toto. I discovered that I preferred the outer crust more than the soft interior. With the next zeppola, I nibbled off only the outside layer, leaving behind a pillow of soft cooked dough. I stared at it, wishing it had more crust, and suddenly had an amazing idea. Emboldened by my brainstorm, I walked into the kitchen, handed the naked zeppola to my aunt and asked her to fry it again for me. Always obliging, Auntie did it. It came out of the pot with a brand new crust! I ate only the crust from it and had her fry it again. I repeated this a few times, each time eating only the newly formed crust, until my zeppola was the size of a large marble. I felt I had made an amazing discovery.
Where my first experience with zeppole had introduced me to the magic of deep frying, this second experience confirmed that I intuitively understood the process of frying and could control it at will, and use it to my advantage. I realized then that cooking was not just a passive process with controlled measures and fixed rules, but an exciting process of experimentation and extrapolation.
Over the years I have encountered many other variations of fried dough: Amish funnel cakes, New Orleans beignets, Hawaiian malassadas, Polish paczki, Navajo fry bread and more. None ever brought me the same satisfaction as those early zeppole.Tags: zeppole, food memories, San Gennaro