MOST PEOPLE HAVE a taste or treasured recipe that zip lines them back in time to their mother’s or grandmother’s or favorite aunt’s kitchen. One memory I cherish is of my Sicilian grandmother and namesake, Providenza Marchisotto Cicero, frying balls of dough in olive oil. When they were cool enough to handle, we kids had the fun of rolling them in sugar, and the joy of eating them still warm.
We called them sugar balls, or spinges. Various spellings exist, but it’s pronounced SPEEN-gees. They were her version of sfinci (SFEEN-chee), the deep-fried choux pastries traditionally eaten throughout Sicily to celebrate the feast day of San Giuseppe (St. Joseph) on March 19. My grandmother used bread dough, and her spinges were more like zeppole, a fried pastry often found at street fairs and at Italian restaurants like Tavolata in Seattle, where they are a mainstay of the dessert menu.
Grandma Etta, as we called her, did not limit spinges to once a year. My sister, Mary Jo, recalls her often arriving for Sunday dinners with a bowl of rising dough covered with a sweater to keep it warm. “She would roll the dough like snakes and cut them.”
Mary Jo is one of several family members named after St. Joseph, patron saint of fathers, workers, immigrants and a happy death, among other things. The Sicilian tradition of naming the firstborn son or daughter after the father’s parents, and the second child after the mother’s parents, creates a lot of duplication. (I have a first cousin also named Providence.) Mary Jo married a Joseph, and for many years carried on the tradition of making spinges every March 19. But our family’s spinge queen was my father’s first cousin, Josephine Cicero Scarpaci, called Aunt Josie even by many not related by blood or marriage.
Josie had ample reasons to celebrate her namesake’s feast day: A husband named Joseph, a son, Joseph Jr., a daughter, Josette, and a nanny-turned-housekeeper, Josephine Wallace, a woman who lived with the family for nearly four decades, eventually converting to Catholicism and taking over the annual spinge-making. A statue of St. Joseph was the centerpiece of the kitchen table, remembers Josie’s daughter Darlene. “My mother would always emphasize the parallels between our hardworking, unassuming father to the patron saint of fathers and carpenters.” But mostly, the feast day gave Josie an excuse to throw a party, which she loved to do.
When Josie’s kids “aged out,” the annual celebration moved to her sister Nikki’s house, recalls Nikki’s daughter, Sandy Jo (AKA Sandra Josephine). Sandy’s older sister, Anny, carries on their mother’s tradition to this day, hosting a spinge party every year. Anny and my sister both use Josie’s recipe, passed down from the Scarpaci branch of the family. They substitute vegetable oil for the olive oil and Crisco combo the original recipe specified.
The yeast dough is enriched with eggs and makes a loose, sticky batter difficult to form into balls, I found, when I made my first batch of spinges. They tasted good but looked like prehistoric fossils.
My mother’s side of the family hails from the town of Lucca in Tuscany. Spinges weren’t one of their traditions, even though her father, Giuseppe Poli, was born on March 19. My mother learned to make spinges and other Sicilian specialties from her mother-in-law, Grandma Etta. I asked mom if she still had the recipe. Buy Rhodes frozen white bread dough, she said. Defrost it and let it rise. Punch it down, make balls and fry them. Pop went my nostalgic bubble. Still, I tried it. The frozen dough didn’t have the flavor or lightness I was after, so I went back to Josie’s recipe. (Way too much fried dough was consumed in the writing of this article.) I upped the yeast, omitted the eggs and added baking powder. The stiffer dough resulted in rounded pastries that are chewy but airy and delicately crisp. Rolled in cinnamon sugar, they taste of sweetness and love, just as I remember.
Aunt Josie’s Spinges (sort of)
Spinges (pronounced SPEEN-gees) are my family’s rendition of sfinci (SFEEN-chee), the fried pastries traditionally eaten throughout Sicily to celebrate the feast day of St. Joseph on March 19. I adapted this recipe from one in the family for generations.
Yield: about 3 dozen
2 tablespoons active dry yeast
2 cups warm water (110 to 113 degrees)
1/2 cup sugar, divided
1 teaspoon cinnamon
5 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
Canola oil for frying (about 2 quarts)
1. Combine yeast, warm water and 1/4 cup sugar in the bowl of stand mixer. Stir to dissolve. Let the yeast bloom for 5 minutes.
2. Mix the remaining 1/4 cup sugar with the cinnamon in a shallow bowl and set aside.
3. Mix flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl and whisk to combine.
4. Gradually add the dry ingredients to the yeast mixture, stirring by hand until a shaggy dough is formed. Using the mixer’s dough hook, knead for 5 to 7 minutes until a smooth ball is formed. It will be slightly sticky and elastic. Transfer the dough to a large bowl coated with cooking oil spray, cover with oiled plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until at least double in size; about 1½ hours.
5. Pour oil into a heavy pot, deep enough so the dough balls can bob. Heat oil to 350 degrees. (It’s important to keep the temperature steady while frying.)
6. When ready to fry, transfer the dough to a floured board. With floured hands, pinch or cut it into pieces about 1 1/2 inches in diameter, and shape into balls. Using tongs, gently drop them into the hot oil, frying 5 or 6 at a time. Don’t crowd them. Fry 2 to 3 minutes, or until golden brown. They should roll over on their own. If they don’t, give them a nudge. Fish them out with tongs or a slotted spoon. Drain on paper towels.
7. While they are still warm, roll the balls in cinnamon sugar. They are best eaten right away.