Saint Joseph is the patron saint of both families and pastry cooks (one of several patron saints of my profession), so sweets abound on his feast day. At Babbo, we like to celebrate the Feast of San Giuseppe, or Saint Joseph’s Day, which falls on March 19. Mario Batali, chef and owner of Babbo, invites his friends to visit the restaurant and have a sip of homemade nocino, a digestive liqueur made from green walnuts, accompanied by one of my cream-filled sfinci. I make the pastry cream with aromatic toasted walnuts to complement the nocino.–Gina DePalma
LC Choosing My Religion Note
Consider this. What if on Saint Joseph day—or, um, any day we’re craving cream puffs—we all celebrated with these lovely little creations? You know, sorta like choosing your religion. Just a thought.
Saint Joseph’s Day Cream Puffs
For the toasted walnut pastry cream
- 2 1/4 cups whole milk
- 1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 1/2 vanilla bean
- 1/2 cup walnut pieces toasted, cooled, and finely chopped
- 4 large egg yolks
- 1 large egg
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 2 teaspoons nocino (green walnut liqueur) or 1 tablespoon dark rum
For the sfinci
- 1/2 cup water
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter plus more for the baking sheet
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
- 4 large eggs cold (taken straight from the refrigerator)
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
For assembling the sfinci
- 1 1/2 cups heavy cream
- Confectioners’ sugar for dusting
Make the pastry cream
- Place the milk and 1/4 cup sugar in a medium saucepan. Using the blunt side of a small knife, scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean half into the pan and toss in the empty vanilla bean pod. Add the walnuts and place the pan over low heat. Heat the milk, whisking occasionally, until it just comes to a boil. Immediately remove the pan from the heat and set aside to allow the walnuts to infuse the milk for about 20 minutes.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, egg, and the remaining 3 tablespoons sugar. Add the salt and flour and whisk until smooth.
- Return the saucepan to low heat and heat the milk just until bubbles begin to form around the edge of the pan. Slowly whisk some of the hot milk into the yolk mixture, then return the mixture to the pan, whisking to combine. Continue to whisk constantly over low heat until the pastry cream becomes thick and mounds slightly and holds its shape for a moment or two, 1 to 2 minutes.
- Remove from the heat and immediately whisk in the butter and nocino or rum. Strain the pastry cream through a chinois or fine-meshed sieve to remove any lumps of cooked egg. Scrape the pastry cream into a bowl, cover by pressing a piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the pastry cream, and refrigerate for at least 2 hours. (You can make the pastry cream the night before, if you wish, storing it in an airtight container with plastic wrap pressed against the surface.)
Make the sfinci
- Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C) and position a rack in the center of the oven. Lightly butter a large baking sheet or line it with parchment paper.
- Place the water, butter, salt, and 1 tablespoon sugar in a small saucepan. Bring the mixture to a full boil over medium heat, then remove the pan from the heat and dump in all the flour at once. Stir the mixture quickly with a heatproof spatula until a thick, paste-like dough forms. Return the saucepan to medium heat and cook the dough for 2 minutes, constantly spreading it and regathering it over the surface of the pan.
- Transfer the dough to the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Beat on medium speed to release some of the heat. When the steam dissipates, beat the cold eggs into the dough, 1 at a time. Do not add another egg until the previous one has been completely beaten into the dough. When the last egg has been added, add the remaining 1 tablespoon sugar and the vanilla extract and baking powder.
- Continue beating on medium speed until the dough becomes glossy and thick, about 1 1/2 minutes. Scrape the dough into a piping bag fitted with a large round tip. Pipe 1 1/2-inch mounded circles onto the lined baking sheet, spacing them 1 inch apart, or spoon the dough onto the baking sheet with a soup spoon to make rounded 1 1/2-inch mounds.
- Bake the sfinci until nicely golden brown, puffed, and crisp, 17 to 20 minutes. Rotate the baking sheet halfway through the cooking time to ensure even browning. Remove the baking sheet from the oven and quickly prick each puff on the side to release the steam and prevent it from becoming soggy. Allow the puffs to cool completely on the baking sheet.
Assemble the sfinci
- Whip the heavy cream on high speed until stiff peaks form. Beat the walnut pastry cream by hand or with an electric mixer until smooth and shiny, about 30 seconds. Gently fold the whipped cream into the pastry cream.
- Using a sharp knife, cut each cream puff in half horizontally and carefully remove the tops. Fill each puff with a generous amount of pastry cream and replace the tops. Sift confectioners’ sugar over the sfinci before serving. (If you want the puffs to remain as crisp as possible, fill them as soon as they have cooled and serve them right away. You may also fill them and keep them refrigerated until serving; the puffs will soften from the moisture in the cream and take on a comforting tenderness.)
Originally published March 1, 2007