Following close upon St. Patrick’s Day comes the traditional feast day of St. Joseph. In America we do little or nothing to honor the foster father of Jesus, but in Italy and especially in Sicily this is one of the great holidays. St. Joseph has been chosen the patron and protector of the family; and our families certainly need a powerful lobbyist in heaven. Everyone loves St. Joseph’s Day in Sicily. The rich prepare a great buffet dinner. There are traditional dishes served, all of them especially good. And who are the guests? Who are the lucky ones to enjoy all this food? They are the ones whom St. Joseph would invite: the poor, the unfortunate, the halt and the blind.
Sometimes the celebration is a cooperative village effort. The mayor and his cohorts set up the buffet tables in the open public square opposite the cathedral. Wealthy families contribute the food. Everyone is welcome to share in the feast which the rich and poor receive the blessing of St. Joseph and his blessed food.
The dinner begins with a play in which the “Holy Family” takes the leading roles. St. Joseph may be old Giuseppe, the shoemaker, who has shod the villagers for 20 years or more. Mary, the mother, may be the beautiful
Lucia who was best in her First Communion class. But Jesus, the Holy One, how could they choose that little black-eyed Giuliano to be Jesus? He is four years old—and all those years full of trouble of his own making. He is an imp of Satan with his tricks. But look at him now as he sits at the head of the table with St. Joseph on one side and Maria on the other. He is like one of Raphael’s angels, with his black eyes roving from the enormous platters of spaghetti with finocchio to the roasted artichokes and the lentil soup. And now look at him, even his tongue tips out as they bring in St. Joseph’s Sfinge, a large round cream puff filled with sweet cheese and topped with candied cherries and orange peel. You can hear him promise to be good forever, if only he can have St. Joseph’s Sfinge.
In our family we have not yet managed such a big celebration in honor of St. Joseph, but, if a cream puff will convert an Italian imp, we have hopes for our own variety. The spaghetti with fennel sauce is excellent too, and makes a wonderful dish for Lent.
Let the children help with the cream puffs. Nothing is quite so dramatic in the oven. I always was timid about trying anything so fancy, but they really are not difficult.
St. Joseph, the husband of Mary and the foster father of Jesus, was a carpenter by trade. Although he is honored throughout the Christian world, the Sicilians in southern Italy widely venerate him, and several towns have named him their patron saint. So beloved is he there that the Sicilians created a pastry, sfinci, and use it to celebrate St. Joseph’s Day on March 19.
St. Joseph’s Cream Puffs
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Makes about 18 cream puffs
1 stick (1/4 pound) unsalted butter
1 cup water
1 cup sifted all-purpose flour
1⁄4 tsp salt
4 large eggs
1 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp grated lemon rind
1 tsp grated orange rind
1 pound pot cheese or sieved cottage cheese
2 tbsp grated semisweet chocolate
1 tbsp grated fresh orange peel
3 tbsp whole milk
2 tsp almond extract
18 maraschino cherries
1⁄2 cup diced candied orange peel
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Lightly grease a cookie sheet. To make the dough, cook the butter in the water in a large saucepan over medium heat. When the butter has melted, stir in the flour and salt, and continue beating until the dough forms a ball.
Remove the saucepan from the heat. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Stir in the sugar and grated peels.
Drop table-spoonsful of dough onto the prepared cookie sheets at least 3 inches apart. Bake at 400 degrees for 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to 350 degrees, and continue baking for about 25 minutes longer or until puffs are light brown and firm. Remove from oven. Open puffs in the center to let steam escape. Cool on a wire rack.
Meanwhile, make the filling by mixing the cheese with the chocolate and fresh orange peel. Add the milk and almond extract. Chill until ready to use. Before serving, fill the puffs with the cheese filling and top with the cherries and candied orange peel.
This celebration would not occur had not the Blessed Virgin Mary responded to the Angel Gabriel her “Yes, be it done to me according to your word.” Who we are celebrating is the Lord Jesus, who was conceived in the womb of the Virgin, who freely said “yes” to God’s invitation. This is a day on which all mothers need to thank God for their children, those who were conceived, those who were born and those whom they nurture in the spiritual life. In contrast to “letting off steam,” may the grateful prayers of each mother rise up like incense to the Lord, who is the giver of life, and who humbled himself to be born in the flesh for our salvation..