Etymology - But where does the word "zeppola" come from? Over the past two centuries various etymologies have been suggested:
- from the Latin "cippus", the Italian "zeppa", or wedge, a piece of wood used to solve small leveling problems of furniture. The wedge is small like a "pinch" of that dough that is then put to fry in hot oil;
- from the Latin "serpula", small snake, from the shape of a snake curling on itself;
- from the Latin "cymbala" a donut-shaped river boat with a flat bottom;
- from the Latin "saeptula" used for objects generally round in shape;
- from "Zi' Paolo" (=uncle Paul), the name of a street fryer in Naples, who, according to some, might have invented the modern "zeppola".
History - Pancakes similar to today's "zeppole" are recorded in antiquity. Since around 500 BC, on March 17 in Rome the Liberalia were celebrated, festivals of the gods of wine and wheat, and in honor of Silenus, the tutor of Bacchus, people drank wine added with honey and spices and ate wheat pancakes fried in hot lard. The current Neapolitan "zeppole" recipe might go back to Pasquale Pintauro, the host of a tavern opposite Santa Brigida, in Via Toledo, Naples, who in 1818 opened the "Pintauro" pastry shop where he began to prepare the "sfogliatelle di Santarosa"; later on, revisiting the ancient Roman pancakes and following the advice of Ippolito Cavalcanti, he began preparing the current zeppole, enriching the dough with eggs, lard and various flavours, and giving them their typical curled-snake shape.
In "Cucina teorico-pratica" by Ippolito Cavalcanti, Duke of Buonvicino (the 9th edition of 1852 is available on Google Books), the recipe is reported on page 180 as follows: "Per fare le zeppole [...] farai con libbre due e mezzo ed once tre (che corrisponde al rotolo di Napoli) la pasta bugnè; fatta questa pasta, la porrai sulla tavola di marmo, o sul pancone verniciato d'oglio, e rimenerai la pasta, della stessa ne farai tanti tortanetti, non molto piccoli, e li friggerai con strutto bollentissimo, potrai ancora con oglio; appena fatta una piccola crosta li rivolterai, e con un ferro puntato espressamente, o con un puntuto di legno li pungigherai dovento vuotarsi così, ed allora le zeppole saranno ottime, le rivolterai di bel nuovo finché giunga il loro punto di cottura biondo perfetto, le farai sgocciolare, l'accomoderai nel piatto proprio a piramide; farai un giulebbe strettissimo, ce lo verserai per sopra, e poscia polverizzerai da per tutto di zucchero, e così saranno servite le zeppole".
[English translation:] To make the zeppole [...] you'll make with two and a half pounds and three ounces (which corresponds to the "rotolo" of Naples) the dough; after making the dough, you'll put it on the marble table, or on the wooden plank greased with oil, and you'll knead the dough, will make from it so many small pieces, not very small, and you'll fry them in hot boiling lard, or otherwise oil; as soon as a small crust is made you shall turn them, and with a pointed iron or with a pointed wood you'll sting them since they must be emptied, and then the zeppole will be fantastic, you'll turn them afresh until they reach the cooking point, perfectly blonde, you shall drain them, then place on a plate in the form of a pyramid; prepare a very dense julep, pour it over them, and afterwards powder sugar all over, and in this way the zeppole will be served".
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