There are certain recipes I trot out year after year in correspondence with the annual holidays that inspire them. And like clockwork, after the first bite, I think to myself that I need to make them more often. These sfinge di ricotta (also known as sfinge di San Guiseppe, or Saint Joseph’s Day pastry) fit that bill. They’re basically Italy’s answer to the cream puff. The dough is a pâte à choux, airy due to a high moisture content that creates steam during baking to literally inflate the pastry. The filling is a homemade cannoli cream scented with orange and cinnamon and studded with tiny bits of chocolate. There are many variations of pastries served on the Lenten March 19th holiday, most of which are fried and somewhat artificial tasting, but these in my opinion are perfection: light, not overly sweet, and elegant.
2 lbs ricotta cheese, drained in a cheescloth-lined colander, 3 hours or overnight
1 cup of confectioner's sugar, plus more for serving
½ teaspoon orange zest
⅔ cup mini chocolate chips
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¾ teaspoon vanilla
¼ cup finely chopped or ground pistachios, for serving
Place the water, oil, granulated sugar, zests, and salt in a large saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil and remove the pan from the heat. Add the flour all at once, stirring constantly.
Return the pan to the heat. Stir until the mixture comes away from the sides of the pan and forms a ball. Continue to cook until you hear a slight crackling sound from the pan. Remove from the heat, and cool slightly.
Add the eggs, one at a time, making sure that each egg is blended into the mixture before you add the next. Keep stirring or whisking until the dough is smooth.
Add the Cognac and vanilla. Cover the dough and let it stand for 15 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 400º F. Drop the dough by heaping tablespoonfuls on a greased cookie sheet, leaving 2 inches between each piece. Bake for 10 minutes, then reduce heat to 350 degrees F and bake for another 20 minutes, or until they are golden. Remove from the oven and cool.
Meanwhile, make the filling. Place dry ricotta into a bowl and beat with a mixer for 5 minutes until smooth. Add the remaining filling ingredients and stir together until smooth.
When the puffs have cooled, cut a small slice off the top. Fill with about 3 tablespoons of cream, replace the small slice on top of filling, top with a small dollop of the filling, and sprinkle with pistachios. Dust with confectioners' sugar. Assemble just before serving so that the pastry will stay crisp and keep refrigerated if not serving immediately.