You'll only find bignè di San Giuseppe—pillowy-soft clouds of choux pastry, deep-fried and filled with pastry cream—at one moment in the year in Rome: They fill the glass cases of Roman pastry shops for March 19, which is the Festa del Papà, or Italian Father's Day.
The holiday is deeply connected to a Catholic tradition: It's the same day as Saint Joseph's (San Giuseppe's) Day.
Joseph, naturally, is an exemplar father, but he's also the patron saint of friars and pastry makers, so it's no coincidence that traditional Father's Day treats around Italy include delectable, deep-fried pastries: In Rome, they have their bignè di San Giuseppe; in Naples, they do zeppole di San Giuseppe (similar to the bignè but piped into a ring shape, filled with pastry cream, and topped with Amarena cherries); Florentine fathers are celebrated with frittelle di riso, golden brown rice fritters rolled in sugar.
Around March 19, you can also find numerous food festivals dedicated, in honor of Italian fathers, to the art of fried pastries. In the foothills of Mount Vesuvius, for example, there's a festival devoted to pastry makers frying batches of zeppole.
The batter for bignè di San Giuseppe is incredibly simple to make and only requires a handful of ingredients: water, butter, flour, and eggs (sugar is optional). There's no need for rising agents as the high content of water in this sticky dough creates steam that makes these ping-pong-ball-sized blobs puff and rise to the size of a fist while frying.
Although you can bake this pastry (as traditional French-style choux pastries are usually made), frying is key here. Make no mistake: They won't be bignè di San Giuseppe unless they're fried. They're fluffier when fried (and therefore more delicious), but it's also a matter of tradition: The Neapolitans have it that Joseph, during the flight to Egypt with Mary and Jesus, had to support the family by deep-frying fritters.
The empty interior caused by the steam calls for a filling—and this is where the pastry cream (or diplomat's cream, if you prefer to combine whipped cream and pastry cream together) comes in. Piped in through a small hole cut in the bottom of the bignè, the cream fills up the pastries like little water balloons.
The result is a wonderfully soft, fluffy pastry that's surprisingly light in terms of texture and consistency. Paired with a thick pastry cream and a light dusting of confectioners' sugar, it's not overly sweet and makes for a special treat with your morning coffee.
You'll find it's too easy to go for seconds and thirds—just make sure you leave some for your dad!
For the pastry cream:
- 4 egg yolks
- 2/3 cup (120 grams) granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons (1 ounce or 30 grams) cornstarch
- 2 cups (500 milliliters) milk, warmed
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract (or half a vanilla pod, seeds scraped)
For the bignè:
- 1 cup (250 milliliters) water
- 1/3 cup (75 grams or 5 tablespoons) butter
- 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 1 cup (125 grams) flour
- 4 eggs
- vegetable oil, for frying
- confectioners' sugar, for dusting