Mary Ann's Blog

Table Set for A Saint - Viva San Giuseppe!

March 19 is no ordinary day in Sicily; it is the traditional feast day of Saint Joseph, Father of the Holy Family, patron of carpenters and pastry chefs, and protector of the poor and the dying. On that day towns and villages prepare what is known asle tavole di San Giuseppe (the tables of Saint Joseph), a gastronomic display of more than a hundred dishes in his honor. Why all the fuss? Because Saint Joseph is credited with delivering Sicily from famine during the Middle Ages and in gratitude for being spared, families of farmers and fishermen built altars in their homes and opened their doors to friends and strangers to share what abundance they had.

Salemi, Sicily, a small town in the Belice Valley, celebrates in a big way. Weeks before the feast, the women of the town begin food preparations and because the feast day usually occurs during Lent, only meatless dishes are permitted. Bread is the most important component; one specialty is a type of sourdough left to rise for hours before being shaped into intricately sculpted designs of Saint Joseph’s beard, his sandals, carpenter tools, and staff. Letters of the alphabet, stars, birds, flowers, and crosses are carved from the dough using ordinary implements like a pasta wheel, hair combs, sewing needles and thimbles. The entire town is covered in these bread ornaments along with oranges and lemons, and foliage strung over elaborate outdoor altars, lamp posts, doorways, and in shop windows.

Bus loads of worshippers arrive on the day to partake in the blessing of the tables and to view the altars set up in private homes where Saint Joseph is the guest of honor and in front of him a groaning board of foods ranging from pasta with breadcrumbs to symbolize the wood shavings of a carpenter, to  fava beans, fried cardoons, fish dishes, arancini (rice balls) and filled cream puffs (bigne). Fava beans are of great significance because during Sicily’s most severe famine, this crop thrived while others failed. That is why it is often referred to as a lucky bean.

Before anyone can eat these foods, the clergy comes to offer prayers and bless the tables. Then the Holy Family (called virgineddi), represented by children are the first to eat and they must taste each of the multitude of dishes with a pause in between each one for a drumbeat sound as the crowd roars “viva San Giuseppe.” By tradition the Holy Family cuts into a large loaf of bread and gives out pieces to all assembled. Eating this bread will ensure good luck in the coming year.

When waves of Sicilian immigrants arrived in America, many continued the tradition of the tables, preparing them in thanksgiving for favors received through prayers to Saint Joseph.

In New Orleans, the tradition is especially strong since many Sicilian immigrants settled there, as well as in Buffalo, New York where my maternal grandmother prepared elaborate dishes after Saint Joseph granted her wish of having my grandfather cured of a serious illness. Viva San Guiseppe

Cream Puffs - Bigne
Makes 8 large or 16 small

1-cup water
½ cup sweet butter cut into bits
1-tablespoon superfine sugar
Pinch salt
1-tablespoon vanilla extract
1 cup bread flour
2 to 3 large eggs
2 large egg whites

Preheat the oven to 450F 

Butter and flour two baking sheets and set aside. Or line the sheets with parchment paper.

Pour the water into a 1-quart saucepan; add the butter, sugar and salt and bring to a rolling boil. Add the vanilla.  Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the flour all at once and mix until it forms a ball of paste.

Return the pot to the stove and over medium heat, “dry' the paste by stirring it in one direction to remove as much water from the paste as possible; this will allow the eggs to be absorbed better and produce a light puff. When the paste is really dry looking, remove it from the heat. Allow it to cool for a few minutes then transfer the paste to a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Beat the paste for a few minutes until it is warm, not hot. otherwise it may cook the eggs. Through the feed tube add 1 egg and process the mixture until it is well blended. Add the second egg and process again. Add 1 egg white and process, then the second egg white. Do not add the third egg if the mixture does not hold up in a mass when scooped with a spoon. You may not need the third egg depending on the size eggs you started with.

To do this process by hand, use a wooden spoon to add the eggs and whites individually as explained above.

The paste should look shiny and should be smooth and thick and be able to fall from the spoon in a heavy mass.

Spoon the paste into a pastry bag with or without a plain tip. Do not fill the bag too full or the paste will ooze out the top. Fill the bag 3/4 full. Twist the top of the bag  closed and pipe out 1-1/2 inch rounds onto the baking sheets, spacing them 1- inch apart. For miniature puffs, pipe ¼-inch rounds, spacing them apart. Smooth the tops of each puff by dipping your finger in water and rounding the tops. 

Two spoons can be used instead of a pastry bag to make the puffs. 

Bake them on the middle oven rack for 12 to 15 minutes or until they are puffed and beginning to brown. Lower the heat to 300F and continue baking for 20-30 minutes or until the puffs are golden brown and dry. Do not remove them until they are browned and dry otherwise they will collapse. I leave the puffs in the oven with the door ajar after turning off the oven.

Make a small slit in each puff to allow steam to escape. 

Cool on cooling racks to allow for good air circulation. Puffs can be wrapped individually and frozen for up to one month.

Pastry Cream

3-cups milk
¾-cup sugar
3- ablespoons flour
3-tablespoons cornstarch or potato starch
½-teaspoon salt
2 eggs, beaten
1-teaspoon almond extract
1- tablespoon butter
1 cup whipping cream, whipped

Heat the milk to just under the boil in a 2-quart saucepan

Combine the sugar, flour, cornstarch, and salt in a bowl and stir into the milk. Stir in the eggs and whisk until the mixture thickens. Remove from the heat and stir in the almond extract and butter. Transfer the mixture to a bowl, cover and chill.

When ready to serve, beat the cream in a separate bowl and fold into the pastry cream until smooth. 

Fit a pastry bag with a plain tip and fill the bag  3/4 full with the pastry cream. Puncture the side of each cream puff with the pastry tip and fill. 

Place the cream puffs on a serving dish and sprinkle them  with confectioners sugar and serve immediately.

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