Zeppole with vino cotto.
I first discovered your website while searching for pizza de scarola. Now I am intrigued by your “Lost Recipes Found” section. A few years back I wrote a cookbook with all my Nana’s recipes. It’s called Who Has Nana’s Recipe? My website is whohasnanasrecipe.com.
Unfortunately, one recipe lost with Nana’s passing was of a dessert. It was shaped like a doughnut hole and fried; then she soaked it in a raisin syrup called vino cotto. We have the syrup recipe; we are just not sure how she made the doughnut hole that eventually got soaked in it. I am assuming it was made with yeast, as I recall its having a spongy consistency when we ate it as children.
I wonder if it is similar to a zeppole recipe. My mom doesn’t think so.
Nana came from the Puglia region. Her town was Toritto, just southwest of Bari.
Any help you can provide would be very much appreciated.
This holiday season I received several lost recipe requests for foods that contain vino cotto, or mosto cotta, as it’s also called in Southern Italy. Vino cotto is a boiled-down grape syrup, usually made from overly ripened wine grapes. The juice, which is known as must (hence the name mosto), is gently boiled until it becomes sweet and thick. It’s especially popular in many traditional holiday dessert recipes, which is why I got a little flood of e-mails mentioning it starting around late November. It’s called sapa in Le Marche, and it goes by the name saba in Emilia-Romagna, where it’s thought to have been a homey precursor to balsamic vinegar. It was an early Italian sweetening agent used by farm people and just about everyone who couldn’t afford white sugar, which meant everyone but the aristocracy. It has, as you’d expect, a pronounced sweet-and-sour taste, a flavor loved by Southern Italians in particular. In Southern Italy mosto is sometimes made with figs. Many people used to make their own, from grape must, figs, or raisins, as Regina mentions in her e-mail. Some still do.
An Abruzzi Christmas cookie that I recently researched for a reader (see “Victoria’s Christmas Cookes from Abruzzo”) cooked up, the reader said, just about perfect, except that she sensed something missing. She now remembers that the original contained mosto, which would have added a sophisticated edge to the filling, breaking up all nuts and sugar with it’s agrodolce suavity. And I thought, yes, that’s just what that cookie needed.
The first time I purchased a bottle of vino cotto was in Lecce, a beautiful town in Puglia filled with baroque monuments. I was standing on line in a very fancy shop, a food-obsessed American’s dream. A lady who recognized that I was a tourist asked condescendingly what I planned to do with the skinny little bottle of maroon liquid I was holding. I told her, honestly, that I wasn’t sure, but I liked the idea of the stuff. Maybe that was the wrong thing to say. Se snickered at me clutching my folkorico trophy. But then I got the nerve to ask her, “What do you do with it?” Her reply: “Well, pour it on cantaloupe, of course.” How utterly naive of me. I tried that when I got home. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t some amazing taste sensation either. (I prefer to lightly salt my cantaloupe, which I learned from my grandfather.) Obviously this lady was a real Puglian snob, for when I got back home and started looking into uses for vino cotto I found out that it’s cooked into or poured on all sorts of dishes. So I started playing around with it, adding it into an oxtail stew, sprinkling it on roasted onions, and incorporating it into salad dressings.
Many traditional Puglian desserts are finished with a drizzling or dunking in vino cotto. The one I’m most familiar with is cartellate (also spelled carteddate), a beautiful, crunchy pastry. A strip of dough is wrapped into a spiral and then plunged into hot oil, emerging opened up like a full-blown rose. It’s then anointed with vine cotto, or sometimes honey. And plenty of other Southern Italian sweets, many from Puglia, incorporate vino cotto, including panzerottini, a sweet fried ravioli, sasanelli, a type of cake with figs and walnuts and mosto, bocconotti, a filled cookie, cauciuni, a fried thing made with chickpeas and chocolate, stuezzi, made with almonds and lemon, and culla du Gesu bambino (crib for the baby Jesus), which incorporates many key flavors of Puglia, including orange, mosto, pignolis, almonds, and anise. But damned if I could find one doughnut hole.
After going through all my published sources, including books by Luigi Sada, Puglia’s most famous food historian, and asking around my circle of Italian-American food weirdos, I couldn’t come up with a specific fried doughnut that is traditionally dipped in vino cotto. I like my lost recipes to be well documented, and I know Regina’s doughnut holes are lurking somewhere in some small town around Bari. However there are many types of Italian doughnuts, such as the fried ricotta ones a friend’s Neapolitan grandmother used to make for Christmas morning. My mother used to make us pizza fritta on weekend mornings, which was fried pizza dough sprinkled with powdered sugar. And then there are bomboloni of Florence, which are fashioned like doughnut holes. The dough for them is more like an American doughnut in texture than is, say, a zeppole, which is essentially pizza dough. Zeppole is what is classically thought of as the Southern Italian doughnut, but Regina says her mother doesn’t think the one she remembers had that kind of texture.
Another Southern Italian doughnut is sfingi, made in honor of St. Joseph’s Day in Naples and Sicily and constructed more like a fried cream puff. It often goes by the name zeppole too. It’s traditionally filled with lemon or vanilla custard and sour cherries, or with a ricotta cream, and finished with powdered sugar. Sometimes it’s left unfilled and simply rolled in cinnamon sugar. I did find one cream puff-type zeppole recipe in an old Puglian pamphlet-type cookbook I picked up near Bari a few years back. That version was unfilled and drizzled with honey. Since the style resembled Regina’s doughnut and it was from around the Bari area, I tried it out. Well, I’m not sure whether I just screwed up the translation, but the doughnuts came out as soggy, leaden, greasy lumps, truly disgusting, in fact. Too much flour for sure. Sometimes those little stapled-together, locally written recipe collections I’m so eager to collect when I travel are filled with shoddy, half-assed recipes. I buy them more for ideas than to actually cook from.
Discouraged but not defeated I turned to a recipe given to me by a neighbor from childhood, a good friend of my mother’s named Gloria Mastellone. She used to make wonderful St. Joseph’s Day fritters, light and sweet. Her family was from Sorrento, and the version she produced was filled with a silken lemony custard. I made the puff part of the recipe as she instructed, although cutting it in half. And since the fritters weren’t to be filled, I added a bit of vanilla and lemon to the batter, just for a flavor boost. I finished them with a drizzle of vino cotto mixed with a little honey, finding the vino cotto itself too astringent. This blend is probably closer in taste to Regina’s raisin vino cotto than the imported Puglian grape version I buy anyway.
The result was a really lovely thing, sweet, springy, and cute. I’m offering it to Regina as a possibility. But is it her grandmother’s doughnut? Hard to say. However, one of the pleasures I get from these lost recipes is receiving reader feedback. There just may be someone out there, one of my Puglian readers, who knows exactly what this recipe is and maybe even knows how to make it. So if it sparks your memory, please write and let me know. I’m sure Regina would be most appreciative. In the meantime here goes my educated guess.
Note: Vino cotto is available in this country at Italian specialty shops. The one I like the best is made by Luigi Caloguiri in Puglia. You can order it through www.buonitalia.com.
Zeppole with Vino Cotto
(Makes about 40 zeppole)
1 stick unsalted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
The grated zest from 1 lemon
A pinch of salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon powdered sugar
4 large eggs
A mix of olive oil and a mild-tasting vegetable oil for frying (about 4 cups)
1/4 cup vino cotto
1/4 cup honey
Place the butter in a large saucepan. Add the vanilla, lemon zest, salt, and 1 cup of warm water. Bring to a boil. Turn the heat to low, and add all the flour and the powdered sugar, stirring all the while with a wooden spoon. Keep mixing, over very low heat, until the mixture is very smooth and starts pulling away from the sides of the pan. Remove from the heat, and let cool for a few minutes. Then start adding the eggs, one at a time, working them into the batter with a wooden spoon one by one until they’re all incorporated and you have a nice smooth, yellow dough.
In a small saucepan, gently heat the honey and vino cotto together until well blended. Let cool while you fry the zeppole.
In a heavy-bottomed pot, heat the oil to about 375 degrees. Oil a teaspoon and spoon up teaspoon-size dollops of the batter, coaxing them off into the hot oil with another teaspoon, about 5 or 6 at a time (don’t be tempted to make them bigger or they’ll be doughy in the middle). Fry, turning them once or twice, until they’re puffy and golden brown all over. Scoop them out with a large strainer spoon, and let the zeppole drain on paper towels for a minute. Pile them up on a platter, and drizzle with vino cotto and honey mixture. Serve right away.