Baking Good Luck Charms for St. Joseph

As St. Patrick's Day revelers dry out and recover from yesterday's merriment, Italians scattered around the U.S. and abroad are gearing up for tomorrow, March 19, a celebration of a patron saint of their very own. The saint in question is San Guiseppe, aka St. Joseph (as in Jesus, Mary and Joseph), and he's been known to protect the common worker from a host of calamities, including illness, bad weather, poverty and all-around bad luck.


A ring of St. Joseph's bread for some good luck at Casa Appetite.

I don't know from experience what it's like to be part of a St. Joseph's shindig, but based on how Sara Roahen describes in her "Gumbo Tales," it's a combination feast and homage and thanks to Guiseppe via offerings of decorative breads, cookies and other sweets. New Orleans is one of the many Italian communities where St. Joseph's Day is a big deal, a day when if you're down on your luck, this is the day to change things around.

On the heels of reading Roahen's book, I came across a piece in this month's issue of Saveur about St. Joseph's festivities in northern Jersey, including a recipe for an edible St. Joseph's bread, which prompted an e-mail to Roahen, who said she only knew of the decorative breads in her beloved New Orleans, nothing that you'd actually eat.

So I decided to give the recipe (below) a whirl, for both Roahen and for satisfying my curiosity. If nothing else, I'd be putting my energy out there, waving a flag at Guiseppe, asking him for a moment of his time -- and if I'm lucky -- a blessing.

Traditionally, St. Joseph's Day breads are rolled into various ornamental shapes, symbolizing Joseph's life and that of his foster son, Jesus. I'm not one for arts and crafts, so I kept things simple, deciding on a ring, representing Jesus's crown of thorns. If you're more crafty, the Saveur article includes how-to for shaping the bread into a staff.

The dough is only faintly sweet, so I added golden raisins and aniseed for a little extra flavor, but I must make a confession: I forgot to do a second rise on the dough, as called for in the recipe, which explains why I found the baked result a tad underdeveloped. Otherwise, this would make a nice breakfast coffee ring, particularly if you prefer baked goods to be more savory than sugary sweet.

But here's the dangling thread: I want to know more about St. Joseph's Day. Try as I might, I can only get limited info on how it's celebrated, particularly in this country. Did you grow up with St. Joseph feasts? Is this an important day on your calendar. Please send all tales, recipes and tidbits to this Irish gal.

Today is chat day; join me at noon ET for What's Cooking.

Saint Joseph's Bread
Adapted from the March 2008 issue of Saveur

Ingredients
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for greasing the proofing bowl
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup water, heated to 105-110 degrees
1/3 cup sugar
1 1/4 ounce-packet active dry yeast
5 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (I substituted white wheat flour)
1 teaspoon salt
3 eggs, at room temperature
Optional: 3/4 cup golden raisins, soaked in water for an hour, and ½ teaspoon anise seeds

Method
Heat butter and milk in a small saucepan over medium heat until butter is melted; let cool to room temperature, about 20 minutes. Whisk together water and a pinch of sugar in a small bowl. Sprinkle yeast over top and whisk until combined. Cover with a tea towel and let it sit, until foamy, about 10 minutes.

In a large bowl, whisk together 1 1/2 cups of the flour, sugar and salt. Add cooled milk mixture, yeast mixture and 2 of the eggs and whisk until smooth, about two minutes. Add remaining flour, 1/2 cup at a time, using a rubber spatula once dough begins to form into a ball. Once all flour has been added, turn dough onto a lightly floured work surface and knead until smooth, about five minutes.

Grease a large bowl with butter and add dough. Turn dough to coat with butter. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about two hours.

When ready to roll and shape, remove dough from bowl and punch it down, patting it into a flat rectangle on a work surface. With a rolling pin, continue to flatten the rectangle until it is roughly 12 by 16 inches. Using your hands, press dough into an even thickness.

Place dough so that the longer side is parallel to your body. If using raisins and anise, add now, distributing evenly on top of dough.

With your hands, roll dough into a tight tube, making sure it's an even thickness from end to end. Pinch tube along its crease to seal it. Gently roll tube back and forth to smooth. Leave it crease side down on work surface.

Attach both ends of the tube to make a ring and place on a greased baking sheet. Cover loosely with a towel and allow to rise in a warm place until double in size, about one hour.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Beat remaining egg in a small bowl. Brush risen dough all over with egg. Using a razor blade or thin sharp knife, make Xs about one inch deep on top of ring and pull slashes apart slightly with your hands.

Place baking sheet in oven and mist inside of oven with a spray bottle. Bake bread until deep golden brown, 25-30 minutes. Allow to cool on a rack before serving.

Saint Joseph's Bread
Adapted from the March 2008 issue of Saveur

Ingredients
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for greasing the proofing bowl
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup water, heated to 105-110 degrees
1/3 cup sugar
1 1/4 ounce-packet active dry yeast
5 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (I substituted white wheat flour)
1 teaspoon salt
3 eggs, at room temperature
Optional: 3/4 cup golden raisins, soaked in water for an hour, and ½ teaspoon anise seeds

Method
Heat butter and milk in a small saucepan over medium heat until butter is melted; let cool to room temperature, about 20 minutes. Whisk together water and a pinch of sugar in a small bowl. Sprinkle yeast over top and whisk until combined. Cover with a tea towel and let it sit, until foamy, about 10 minutes.

In a large bowl, whisk together 1 1/2 cups of the flour, sugar and salt. Add cooled milk mixture, yeast mixture and 2 of the eggs and whisk until smooth, about two minutes. Add remaining flour, 1/2 cup at a time, using a rubber spatula once dough begins to form into a ball. Once all flour has been added, turn dough onto a lightly floured work surface and knead until smooth, about five minutes.

Grease a large bowl with butter and add dough. Turn dough to coat with butter. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about two hours.

When ready to roll and shape, remove dough from bowl and punch it down, patting it into a flat rectangle on a work surface. With a rolling pin, continue to flatten the rectangle until it is roughly 12 by 16 inches. Using your hands, press dough into an even thickness.

Place dough so that the longer side is parallel to your body. If using raisins and anise, add now, distributing evenly on top of dough.

With your hands, roll dough into a tight tube, making sure it's an even thickness from end to end. Pinch tube along its crease to seal it. Gently roll tube back and forth to smooth. Leave it crease side down on work surface.

Attach both ends of the tube to make a ring and place on a greased baking sheet. Cover loosely with a towel and allow to rise in a warm place until double in size, about one hour.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Beat remaining egg in a small bowl. Brush risen dough all over with egg. Using a razor blade or thin sharp knife, make Xs about one inch deep on top of ring and pull slashes apart slightly with your hands.

Place baking sheet in oven and mist inside of oven with a spray bottle. Bake bread until deep golden brown, 25-30 minutes. Allow to cool on a rack before serving.

By Kim ODonnel |  March 18, 2008; 11:01 AM ET Bread , Culinary History
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Comments

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I've never been to a St. Joseph's Table but I lived in the Buffalo/Niagara Falls area for many years, and I know that they're big in the local Catholic community. They aren't just family celebrations, they are supposed to be open to the poor.

http://buffalolore.buffalonet.org/stjoseph/stjoseph.htm

Posted by: Midge | March 18, 2008 12:02 PM

This just in from writer Sara Roahen, who's just returned from New Orleans:
"Because this week is Holy Week (early this year), St. Jospeh's Day was officially moved to this past Saturday. Most people in New Orleans complied and had their altars then -- or at least the churches did."

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | March 18, 2008 3:17 PM

And here's a link to some pix and journal-style tidbits about St. Joseph's Day altar-making in New Orleans, from writer Poppy Z. Brite:

http://docbrite.livejournal.com/

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | March 18, 2008 3:24 PM

The Italian Store in Arlington, VA (Lee Hwy)takes orders for St. Joseph's cake. I don't know whether they have it already made for purchase this time of year. I am Italian and was raised Catholic but never knew anything about St. Joeseph's day until I lived in New Orleans which in addition to the altars; they have a parade as well.

Posted by: Arlington | March 18, 2008 3:38 PM

St. Joseph's Day is also celebrated in Spain as Father's Day. I studied there in college, but I don't remember there being feasts or special breads.

Posted by: Alexandria | March 18, 2008 4:12 PM

I have never been part of a St. Joseph's Day Table either, but I've read a fair bit about it, ever since my early teens when I ran across a recipe for cavazune in a local Catholic church cookbook and proceeded to make them every year for long-suffering friends and family. Cavazune, or "St. Joseph's Trousers" (never mind that he wouldn't actually have worn trousers) are a sort of cookie/ fried dough treat filled with a spiced chickpea, honey, and grape jelly, mixture (honey and grape jelly being the American substitute for the must used in Italy). It sounds a bit peculiar I grant you, but they're pretty good--at least once a year.
As befits the patron saint of Italy, there are a HOST of recipes associated with Joseph and his feast. They usually fall into three categories: meatless dishes (Falling as it does in Lent, St. Joseph's Feast is a meatless feast. Fish, pasta, and legumes play starring roles for the main courses, see for example http://www.foodnetwork.com/food/recipes/recipe/0,1977,FOOD_9936_18185,00.html .); breads (already discussed by Ms. O'Donnell) and sweets; besides cavazune there are bigne, sfinci, cassateddi, zeppole, frittele (a rice based one)...the listgoes on for quite while.
So could I, but I'll stop by saying that if you're interested in reading more about St. Joseph's Day and the customs that surround it in Italy, Carol Field has a lovely description of the table as celebrated in one town in Sicily in her marvelous book, Celebrating Italy. Ernst Schuegraf's Cooking with the Saints has more recipes, as does Evelyn Birge Vitz's wonderful A Continual Feast (a must for any liturgical baker/cook). Mario Battali has also done San Giuseppe episodes the past few years on "Molto Mario."
For information on how the feast is celebrated in New York, check out http://members.aol.com/nonstopny/italiano/stjoseph.htm, and for a fascinating read about how Poles in the American Midwest adopted an Italian feast, see, http://acweb.colum.edu/users/agunkel/homepage/easter/swjozef.html.
Alas between work, Easter baking, and the fact that his day is in Holy Week this year, I won't be giving St. Joseph his due today. But I imagine his foster son wouldn't mind if I break out some bigne on Pasquetta nor would his wife should zeppole appear on the table next to the waffles on the Feast of the Annuciation. After all good fathers and husbands should get their due.

Posted by: Liturgical Baker | March 19, 2008 1:36 AM

I seem to remember, from working with an Italian-American art director named Joseph, that Pasta con Sarde was another traditional dish for St. Joseph's Day. It's one of those great Sicilian dishes with notes of North Africa . . . sardines, raisins, pine nuts, and fennel.

Posted by: Nina | March 19, 2008 2:58 PM

San Giuseppe is celebrated with zeppole ,which are a real delicacy and not difficult to make. Worth the trouble.
Ciao

Posted by: Marisa | March 25, 2008 5:37 AM

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