I know the big holiday in March is St. Patrick’s Day, but in my family St. Joseph’s Day is the big one. I remember celebrating St. Joseph’s Day (March 19) when I was a child. Our family, along with my aunts, uncles, and cousins, would drive to Jackson Height’s to my Nana and Popop’s apartment.
They lived on the top floor of a four-story walk-up on 85th Street, near 37th Avenue. As soon as we opened the door to the building, we could smell evidence of my grandmother’s hard work; a feast awaited us upstairs.
We ate everything from platters of fresh mozzarella, soppressata, and mortadella, to homemade manicotti, Nana’s meatballs, fish, vegetables, and for dessert … Nana’s “gavazoons” – fried pastry envelopes filled with a sweet chickpea mash scented with cinnamon. I do not remember the gavazoons being so fabulous, but I loved them nonetheless in the spirit of tradition.
Traditions evolve over time. I am told by my mother that as a child she never ate meat at the St. Joseph Day celebration. Instead, she remembers her Nana’s codfish and raisin balls and a small whitefish simply prepared with olive oil and a touch of vinegar. My Nana died in 2004 and with her went the St. Joseph Day celebration.
A year later, I decided to carry on the tradition at my house and made changes of my own. We gather at my house on the Sunday closest to St. Joseph’s Day following morning mass. I serve brunch, which includes, among other things, various frittatas, homemade breads, and my spaghetti pie. For dessert, I do not make my Nana’s gavazoons – instead, I make my version of zeppole, which are a nod to my father’s side of the family who are from Sicily.
My zeppole are fried dough, like a donut, rolled in superfine sugar. I also make my lemon-ricotta cookies. They are a soft, cake-like cookie with a simple butter cream-style frosting. We continue to gather each year and honor all of the Joseph’s in our lives and those that have come before.
As a child, I always looked forward to St. Joseph’s Day for the food. Nevertheless, looking back I see that the real reason we gathered in that crowded apartment was not for the great food as much as it was for the tradition. As I raise my three kids, I see how family traditions mark the year for them. They look forward to these celebrations with great anticipation, and I am happy that I have brought something from the past, into our present, with the hope of passing it on into the future.
Lemon ricotta cookies with butter cream frosting
4 ounces butter (1 stick), softened
1 cup sugar
1 cup whole milk ricotta cheese
½ tsp. vanilla extract
¼ tsp. salt
zest of half a lemon
2 ¼ cups flour
1 tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. baking soda
Frosting (see below) and colored decorating sugar
1. Heat oven to 350°F. In large bowl, with mixer at medium-high speed, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add ricotta, eggs, vanilla, and salt; beat well to combine. Add lemon zest; beat to combine. With mixer at low speed, add flour, baking powder, and baking soda.
2. Drop dough by rounded tablespoonfuls (1 ½” balls) onto ungreased cookie sheets. Bake 9 to 11 minutes, switching pans in oven, until cookies are puffed and toothpick inserted in center of cookie comes out almost clean with a few crumbs attached.
3. Remove cookies to wire rack to cool. When cool frost cookies and sprinkle with colored decorating sugar. Makes about 35 cookies.
Frosting: In medium bowl, with spoon, combine 4 tablespoons very soft butter, 2 cups confectioners’ sugar, about 3 tablespoons heavy cream or half-and-half, and ¼ teaspoon vanilla extract – adding more cream for desired spreading consistency.