Sardinian Potato Doughnuts
by Gina DePalma
With a winter snowfall fast approaching, I am happily prepping to make a batch of Zippulas this weekend, tender little potato doughnuts from Sardinia that are a terrific pick-me-up me up for the winter doldrums.
Technically speaking, my timing is off by about six weeks, since zippulas are a popular favorite in Sardinia during Carnevale. In the days before Ash Wednesday, nearly all of Italy indulges in tasty fried treats to prepare for the coming austerity of Lent. What makes these extra special is the kick of flavor and color they get from one of the island’s finest local products, saffron.
Saffron was introduced to Sardinia from Central Italy as a medicinal herb in the 9th century, and by the 13th century it was actively cultivated, becoming a popular ingredient in local recipes. Sardinia’s saffron production zone is smaller than that of San Gimignano in Tuscany and L’Aquila in Abruzzo, but locals swear that their crop has more of the aromatic essential oils and pigments that are key to its particular flavor profile.
The potato in this dough makes it silky and resilient, and a good long rise in a warm spot will result in the lightest, fluffiest final texture. I love the sunny yellow color and perfume of fresh orange that burst out from the crispy fried exterior. Make sure to use a baking potato, such as an Idaho, rather than a waxy potato. A ricer is essential for breaking down the cooked potato to a texture that will perfectly accept the wet ingredients without making the dough gummy.
This is not an everyday sort of recipe, but a way to honor and participate in a distinct cultural celebration. Make them when you have a crowd ready and waiting to enjoy them while they are hot and fresh.
I paired them in the photo with myrtle berry jam to honor the traditions of Sardinia, but any berry jam, or even local honey, will make a fine accompaniment.
Boil the potato in lightly salted water until it is tender when pierced with a knife. Drain the water and allow the potato to cool slightly, then peel off the skin. While the potato is still warm, put it through a ricer, spreading the riced potato on plate to cool completely.
In the meantime, zest the orange and squeeze the juices into a small bowl, straining out any seeds. You should have ½ cup of orange juice, (4 fl oz, 118 ml). Scald the milk in a small saucepan and add the saffron. Set the pan aside and allow the saffron to infuse and color the milk, whisking occasionally, until it has cooled to lukewarm, about 105 °F. Whisk the yeast into the warm milk to dissolve it, and allow the mixture to proof for five minutes.
Place the flour in a large bowl and combine it with the salt. Add the potato to the bowl. Whisk the egg together with the orange juice and zest, grappa and sugar, then add this mixture to the flour and potato along with the warm milk and yeast mixture. Work the ingredients together with a fork, then by hand into a ball of dough. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured board and knead it, adding more flour if necessary until the dough is smooth and elastic, about 2 minutes.
Place the dough in greased bowl, turning it once to coat it, and cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a damp towel. Place the bowl in a warm place to rise until doubled in bulk, about 2 hours.
Heat the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed stockpot or countertop fryer to 360 °F. Break off one-inch pieces of dough and roll them into balls with the palms of your hands.
Fry the zippulas, 3 or 4 at a time, until they are golden brown and crispy, turning them to brown evenly. Drain the doughnuts on paper towels, dust them with powdered sugar and serve while warm.
Makes about 20-25 small doughnuts
Recipe courtesy of Gina DePalma (W.W. Norton & Company 2007)