Perfectly crisp on the outside and airy on the inside, these little Zeppole donuts are a classic Italian pastry that is unbelievably delicious and incredibly easy to make. With just a few simple pantry ingredients and this foolproof recipe, you can easily make these Italian sweet treats right at home to share with your whole family!
What is zeppole?
Very popular on St. Joseph’s Day in Italy and commonly found at Italian festivals, zeppole dates back to ancient Rome when people began frying dough and then topping it with sugar. They are basically little donuts made from pate choux pastry dough, which is the kind of dough that is also used to make cream puffs and eclairs. It’s a type of dough that doesn’t require any yeast or leavening agent and is first cooked on the stove. It’s then placed in a pastry bag to be piped out and fried to form various shapes and sizes.
In this zeppole recipe, we will be making simple donut balls covered in powdered sugar. However, much like other traditional Italian recipes, you can find many different variations of zeppole all over the Italian peninsula. Some that are very similar to the type presented here made with pate choux and others that are made with pizza dough which more like bread dough and does contain yeast. And not only do they come in different shapes and sizes made with different types of dough, but they are also made with all sorts of fillings and toppings as well.
What do you need to make this recipe?
Saucepan – You will need a medium saucepan to cook the dough.
Wooden Spoon – Used to stir the flour into the dough. You can also use a heatproof rubber spatula.
Mixer – You will need a stand mixer or a handheld electric mixer to beat the eggs into the flour mixture.
Deep Pot – A deep heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven is needed to safely fry the zeppole. A deep fryer can also be used if you prefer.
Pastry Bag – Needed to form the dough into donuts. A ziplock bag will work as well.
Kitchen Thermometer – Helpful in monitoring the oil temperature while frying the donuts. A candy thermometer can be used if that is all you have on hand.
Slotted Spoon – Used to safely remove the zeppole from the hot oil.
Fine Mesh Sieve – Needed to dust the donuts with powdered sugar.
What ingredients do you need to make this recipe?
Unsalted Butter – Always use unsalted butter unless a recipe states otherwise. Salted butter is best used as a condiment and not for cooking.
Water – Used to help the gluten form when making the dough in combination with the milk.
Milk – Whole milk is the best option, but 2% can also be used.
Sugar – Just a small amount of basic white granulated sugar is all you need to sweeten the pate choux dough.
Salt – A pinch of salt is an important ingredient that helps to balance the sweetness.
Flour – Simple all-purpose flour is all you need to make this Italian donut recipe.
Eggs – Large eggs add richness and flavor to the dough along with the butter. They need to be at room temperature for the best results.
Powdered Sugar – Also called icing sugar, it is used to garnish and sweeten the zeppole.
Oil – You will need a flavorless vegetable oil such as canola to fry the balls of dough.
How to make this recipe step by step
1. Begin the pastry dough
To start, add the butter, water, milk, sugar, and salt to a medium saucepan that holds at least 3 quarts photo 1. Then bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat while stirring often photo 2. Next, remove the saucepan from the heat and dump the flour in all at once photo 3. Now, stir the flour into the wet mixture with a wooden spoon until it’s fully incorporated and forms a compact ball photo 4. Then put the saucepan back on the stove and cook the mixture for a couple of minutes over low heat while stirring constantly. You will know the mixture is ready when it’s smooth and there is a film on the bottom of the saucepan.
2. Add the eggs and finish the dough
Once the base of the dough is made, transfer the flour mixture to the bowl of a stand mixer with a whisk attachment photo 5. You can also use an electric hand mixer for this step if you prefer. Now, allow the dough to cool for a few minutes. It’s crucial that you don’t add the eggs to hot dough. Then beat the eggs one at a time into the dough at low speed. It’s important that each egg be fully incorporated into the dough before you add the next one. Then after all the eggs are added, beat the mixture for another 1 to 2 minutes or until it’s glossy and has a smooth pipeable consistency.
3. Prepare to fry
Put the dough into a piping bag with a ½-inch opening or into a ziplock bag and then cut a ½-inch opening at the tip photo 6. Then heat about 4 inches of oil to 375˚F in a deep pot or in a deep fryer. However, it’s very important for safety reasons that you do not heat the oil until just a few minutes before frying the zeppole. It’s also a good idea to use a digital cooking thermometer to monitor the temperature of the oil.
4. Deep fry the zeppole
Now, pipe 1-inch lengths of the dough into the hot oil being very careful not to splash yourself. The best way to do this step is to pipe close the surface of the oil and then quickly pull the pastry bag away. Then cook the donuts for 2 minutes on each side until crispy and golden brown photo 7. You will most likely need to fry the zeppole in several batches so that you don’t crowd the pot. Then when each batch is done, remove the donuts from the hot oil with a slotted spoon and place them on a plate lined with paper towels to absorb the excess oil photo 8.
5. Dust with sugar and serve
After all the donuts have been fried, use a fine mesh sieve to dust them generously with powdered sugar and then serve them right away. You can also sprinkle them with a bit of cinnamon sugar instead or other spices if you like.
Try other Italian feast desserts:
Use high-quality butter, milk, and eggs for richer, more flavorful zeppole. Egg yolks with a deeper yellow color and whole milk make a big difference.
The eggs should be at room temperature. I suggest you take them out of the fridge about an hour before you begin the recipe.
Cook the flour mixture over low heat and stir it constantly to ensure that it doesn’t burn.
The flour mixture must cool down before you can add the eggs or you risk turning them into scrambled eggs that won’t incorporate into the dough.
Fry the Italian donuts in batches. If you crowd the pot they will not evenly cook and can even stick together.
Do not exceed 375°F when frying or the donuts will not grow. Instead, they will stay deflated and raw inside if not cooked at the correct temperature.
Use a digital cooking thermometer to watch the temperature of the oil. When frying, if the oil gets too hot just turn off the heat until it comes down in temperature.
Wear long sleeves to protect your arms when deep frying.
In this delicious recipe, we cover a very traditional and easy type of zeppole to make. However, there are many variations of the pastry. As mentioned the Italian doughnuts can be made with different types of doughs, fillings, and toppings.
One of the most popular types is zeppole di San Giuseppe, also called St Joseph’s pastries, which has a ridged dough base with a creamy yellow custard filling and is topped with a single beautiful cherry. But there is also zeppole di San Gennaro which is made with common pizza dough that has been combined with ricotta cheese and fried into little balls that are then covered in sugar. Or, zeppole di Carnevale which are similar to San Gennaro but typically have a pastry cream filling.
As well as, two very simple types that are very different from each other. Zeppole di Natale alla Sorrentina served during the Christmas season is simple fried dough covered in colorful sprinkles. But the most unique type is zeppole calabresi which is also simple dough but with anchovies inside.