La Festa di San Giuseppe falls each year on March 19, a time when Catholics pay homage to their beloved San Giuseppe. The husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph and took the role of stepfather to the Baby Jesus. He was noted as a hardworking man, faithful to God, who worked tirelessly to provide for his family, which is why he is venerated throughout history.
The St. Joseph tradition first came about during the Middle Ages in Sicily, when a severe drought plagued the island, resulting in widespread famine. The Sicilian farmers and fishermen prayed to San Giuseppe, who answered their prayers and ended the drought with a lush rainfall. Fertile crops flourished throughout the island and the people rejoiced with an abundant feast in the saint’s honor. To show their gratitude, they prepared a table with a special assortment of foods they harvested, which later became known as La Tavola di San Giuseppe.
The first St. Joseph Table set up on the Island of Sicily was a small one. Many of the dishes contained fava beans, a primary Sicilian crop and fish. St. Joseph’s Day falls during Lent which is why many feast dishes do not include meat. Yet as time went on and the tradition took hold, the creative spirit of Italians caused the tables to grow larger and more ornate. In Sicily, a traditional Festa di San Giuseppe would not be complete without a sardine dish. Sarde a Beccafico are sardines rolled in bread crumbs with toasted pignoli nuts and raisins, while Pasta con Sarde is the traditional pasta served on the Feast Day.
Today, St. Joseph’s Tables include these favorites as well as a few sweet additions. Pastries were later added to the table as gifts to the Holy Family. Italians enjoy a variety sfingi or zeppole, known in the United States as St. Joseph’s cakes. These pastries vary from region to region, some containing ricotta filling while others contain sweet pasticciera cream. In honor of this beloved Italian celebration, below are some traditional St. Joseph’s recipes to fill your Tavola di San Giuseppe.
Sicilian-style Fava Bean Soup
- 5 lb fresh fava beans
- 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 1 onion, finely, chopped
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
- 4 cups vegetable stock
- 2 cups diced plum tomatoes
- 2 tbsp chopped fresh Italian parsley
- 1/4 tsp salt
- Pecorino Romano cheese, shaved
Shell the fava beans and discard the pods. In large pot of boiling salted water, cook the beans for 2 minutes. Drain and rinse under cold water and allow to cool completely. Pinch the skin of each bean to break at one end. Squeeze the bean out of skin and set aside. In large saucepan, heat the olive oil over a medium flame. Cook the onion, garlic and red pepper flakes until the onion has softened, about 5 minutes. Add stock, tomatoes and fava beans; bring to a boil. Cover and reduce heat to medium-low and cook for 10 minutes. Add parsley and salt. Ladle soup into bowls, sprinkle with cheese and serve.
Pasta con Sarde
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 1 cup fresh bread crumbs
- 1/2 cup grated Parmigiano cheese
- 1 fennel bulb, diced
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 cup canned crushed tomatoes in thick puree
- 2 cans boneless and skinless sardines, drained
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
- 3/4 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 1 lb spaghetti
In a large frying pan, heat ¼ cup of oil over medium heat. Add the bread crumbs and cook, stirring, until golden, about 5 minutes. Remove the crumbs from the pan and toss with the Parmigiano cheese. Clean out the pan. In the same pan, heat the remaining ¼ cup oil over medium-high heat. Add the fennel and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden, 5 to 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, 1 minute longer. Stir in the tomatoes and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat and simmer until thick, about 10 minutes. Add the sardines, parsley, salt and pepper. Break up the sardines with a fork. Remove from the heat.
In a large pot of boiling salted water, cook the spaghetti until al dente. Drain then toss the spaghetti with the sauce and half of the bread crumbs. Top with the remaining breadcrumbs and serve.
Sarde a Beccafico
- 1 lb fresh sardines, large, cleaned, deboned and butterflied
- 2 onions, large
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1/2 cup pignoli nuts
- 1/2 cup raisins
- 1/2 cup bread crumbs
- 2 tbsp Parmigiano cheese, grated
- bay leaves
- 1 tbsp fresh Italian parsley
- cayenne pepper to taste
- extra virgin olive oil
- 1 lemon
In a sauté pan add olive oil, chopped garlic and 1/4 of one of the finely chopped onions. Cook over a medium flame for 2 minutes, then add the pignoli nuts and let them toast for a minute before adding the raisins. About a minute later add the breadcrumbs and let the ingredients toast for 2-3 minutes.
Add the Parmigiano cheese and mix well until it melts into the ingredients. Then add salt and cayenne pepper to taste – be sparing with the cayenne pepper. Add fresh parsley and remove the pan from the flame.
Spread a light coat of olive oil on the bottom of an oven pan. Lay each sardine on its back on a cutting board, then spread a tablespoon of the stuffing over the surface of the sardine. Roll the sardine and place in the oven pan with a slice of onion on each side. Separate each rolled sardine from the one next to it with a bay leaf. Roll all the sardines in the same fashion. Spread any excess stuffing over the rolled sardines. Bake for 20 minutes at 375°F. Arrange on a platter with lemon for squeezing.
Sfingi di San Giuseppe
Everyone appreciates these delicious sfingi on St. Joseph’s Day. We have included ingredients for two different fillings.
- 1/2 cup butter
- dash of salt
- 1 cup water
- 1 cup cake flour
- 4 eggs
- 1 tbsp granulated sugar
- 1/2 tsp orange peel, grated
- 1/2 tsp lemon peel, grated
For the ricotta filling
- 1 lb ricotta cheese
- 2 tbsp chocolate chips
- 1 tbsp candied orange peel, cut fine
- 2 tbsp granulated sugar (add more if you like)
For the pasticciera cream
- 3 tbsp granulated sugar
- 3 egg yolks
- 3 tbsp flour
- 1/2 tsp lemon rind, grated
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- 2 cups milk
- 1 tbsp butter
Combine butter, salt and water in saucepan and bring to a boil. Add flour all at once and mix well until dough leaves sides of pan. Remove from stove and cool. Add eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Add sugar, orange and lemon peel and mix thoroughly. Drop by tablespoonful onto a greased baking sheet, leaving 3-inch spaces between. Bake in 400 degree oven for 10 minutes; reduce heat to 325 degrees and bake 30 minutes or until golden brown. Make a slit in the side of each and fill with the pasticciera cream or ricotta filling.
To make the ricotta filling, first cream the ricotta well. Add chocolate chips, orange peel and sugar. Mix well and fill the sfingi.
If you wish to fill you sfingi with the cream, place sugar, egg yolks, flour, lemon rind and vanilla extract in saucepan and mix together well. Scald milk and pour over the mixture, beating constantly with a hand mixer. Continue cooking on low heat, stirring with wooden spoon until mixture reaches the boiling point. Cook 4 minutes longer stirring constantly. Remove from the stove and add butter and mix well. Pour into bowl and let cool, stirring occasionally to prevent skin from forming over top. Fill the sfingi.
St. Joseph’s Fig Cookies
Recipe courtesy Lidia Bastianich
- 1/2 cup honey
- 6 tbsp grappa
- 4 tsp orange juice
- 2 cups dried black figs, diced
- 3-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1-1/2 tsp baking powder
- 1/4 tsp coarse salt
- 2 large eggs
- 6 tbsp milk
- 2 tsp lemon zest
- 1/4 tsp cinnamon
- 1/2 cup walnut pieces
For the glaze
- 1-1/2 cups confectioner’s sugar
- 3 tbsp milk, or as needed
In saucepan, bring honey, grappa and orange juice to boil. Add the figs and bring to a simmer. Simmer until figs are plumped, about 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool thoroughly while you make the dough.
In a food processor, combine flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Pulse to combine. In a small bowl, beat the eggs and milk. With the processor running, pour egg/milk mixture into dry ingredients and process until the dough forms a ball, about 15 to 20 seconds. Knead the dough on the counter once or twice, then wrap in plastic wrap and let rest in the refrigerator at least 1 hour or until firm.
When the filling is cool, scrape into a food processor and add the lemon zest and cinnamon. Process to make a smooth paste. Add the walnuts and pulse a few times, leaving the nuts slightly chunky. Transfer the filling to a bowl and freeze until firm, about 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350°F. Divide the dough in half and roll one half between parchment paper to a rectangle about 16 inches by 7 inches. Cut the strip in half to make 2 long strips. Roll a quarter of the filling into a log that fits down the center of 1 strip. Wet the edges of the strip with water and use parchment as a guide to roll into a log and seal. Flatten the top slightly with the palm of your hand. Repeat with remaining dough and filling.
Using a wet knife, cut logs into 1-inch lengths and place with the cut sides facing out onto parchment lined baking sheets. Bake until golden, about 15 to 20 minutes. Transfer cookies to wire rack and cool completely.
To glaze cookies, sift confectioner’s sugar into a bowl and whisk in milk to make a smooth glaze. Pour glaze over the cookies and let dry on wire racks.