Celebrate the ‘Glory of Domestic Life’ With a St. Joseph Altar
With a recipe for authentic Sicilian pignolati
The Solemnity of St. Joseph, celebrated on March 19, is a special day to honor the foster father of Jesus. It’s a feast day celebrated by Catholics worldwide, but especially those of Sicilian heritage. Throughout the United States, the tradition of celebrating the feast day with “St. Joseph altars” in homes and parishes is observed with prayers and with special foods, each representing a specific religious symbol.
A well-known New Orleans Catholic, Sandra Scalise Juneau wrote a commemorative book, Celebrating with St. Joseph Altars: The History, Recipes, and Symbols of a New Orleans Tradition (LSU Press, 2021). Every year, on St. Joseph’s feast day, many Catholics in New Orleans celebrate the day with their ancient tradition of setting up a three-tiered display of food, prayers and offerings. As noted in her book, Juneau has documented this rich tradition — especially of displaying customary Sicilian dishes and baked goods — passed down from generation to generation.
A native New Orleanian and a cradle Catholic of Sicilian heritage, Sandra Scalise Juneau was educated by the Dominican Sisters in New Orleans. When she was just 5 years old, Sandra Juneau was told by her maternal grandmother, Angelina Caronna Accardo, that she would portray Mary as one of the three “saints” representing the Holy Family for the coming year’s St. Joseph Altar, which was to be held in her grandparents’ home. Through the years, her “sacred space” was always in her grandmother’s kitchen, where she learned first-hand about the traditional Sicilian foods that were served for the feast in honor of St. Joseph — all meatless dishes because the feast day arrives in mid-Lent. Besides the many biscotti (assorted cookies) that always included cuccidati (Sicilian fig cookies), Sandra was privileged to learn how to prepare the variety of savory foods that were served, including the many vegetable omelets, called froscia, and the signature pasta dish, Pasta con le Sarde.
By the time she met her future husband, at just 15 years of age, Sandra was already an accomplished cook. She noted that though he was then 18, and they were married four years later, when she was 19 years old, “My husband and I were fortunate to have grown up together,” she said. After marriage and the birth of their two daughters, Sandra was asked to write a monthly column for a local publication about cooking and food because her editor had heard that she could cook.
When, after 57 years of marriage, her husband passed away, Juneau asked God, “What’s next for me?” She connected with LSU Press, which agreed to publish her book about the St. Joseph altar traditions that had been such a significant inspiration throughout her life. After an initial meeting and emailing back and forth, and “after LSU Press agreed to publish the book,” she said, “each day became a work project, when what I had written was then sent to my editor, who revised and refined the recipes and script.
“And when I wrote the book,” she said, “I was focused on veritas, telling the true story of this sacred tradition. There are many books about St. Joseph altars that had been written by individuals who really did not understand the complexity of this centuries-old tradition My mission for this book was threefold: As a reminiscence through photos and stories for those who had experienced this tradition; to explain the religious symbolism of each element on the St. Joseph altar; and for anyone preparing their first St. Joseph altar, to outline the process of planning and preparation, giving detailed instructions of family recipes that had been handed down through generations.”
Though Sandra has never prepared one in her home, she has taught individuals and groups, and assisted at numerous St. Joseph altars for museums and churches across the United States, and notes, “Each St. Joseph altar is a manifestation of many miracles, focusing on the trilogy of the Holy Family, and through the sharing of this sacred feast with family, neighbors and community food distribution programs, it is an annual renewal of St. Joseph’s gift of hospitality.”
According to her, “In 2019, after completing the script for the book, LSU Press advised me that publication would not be until 2021. I was truly humbled when I learned that Pope Francis declared Dec. 8, 2020, to Dec. 8, 2021 … as the ‘Year of St. Joseph!’”
To get a copy of Celebrating with St. Joseph Altars signed by the author, mail a check for $39.60 to Sandra Scalise Juneau, P.O. Box 243, Madisonville, LA 70447. Please indicate the name of the person for the dedication, and include the complete U.S. mailing address of the recipient, and the name and email address of the person placing the order.
Yield 6-8 large or 36 bite-sized pignolati stacks
With just three basic ingredients, these sugar-coated bits of fried pasta dough, mounded into pyramid shapes are said to represent pinecones, the simple toys of the Child Jesus. The making of pignolati is truly one of those labor-of-love projects. In some Sicilian dialects they are called gigis and in northern Italy they are known as struffoli.
- 2 eggs
- 1-1/4 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
- 1 cup sugar, divided
- 1 quart vegetable oil
- In a deep pot or electric fryer, heat cooking oil to 375°F.
- Lightly grease a shallow baking pan with sides and the insides of 4 teacups. Set aside.
- Gradually add 1 cup flour to beaten eggs to form dough. If dough is too sticky to handle, add more flour. Working dough with hands to form a smooth consistency, knead, separate into 2 equal parts. Place in a bowl, cover and set aside for 10 minutes.
- Taking a small ball of dough, roll into 1-inch wide by 12-inch long pencil-like strips. Cutting on a 45-degree angle, cut each dough strip into 1/2-inch pieces. Set aside cut pieces of dough onto a floured linen towel and keep covered with another linen towel. Repeat the process until all the dough has been rolled and cut.
- Add into heated oil, one cup of cut dough pieces at a time, stirring to keep pieces from sticking together, and fry until light golden colored. Drain on paper towels and set aside.
- Into a heavy skillet over medium heat, add 1/2 cup sugar and stir with a wooden spoon until sugar is melted to a thin, light golden colored syrup. Reduce heat to simmer and add several cups of fried dough to the hot syrup. Stir until pieces are completely coated. Turn sugared pieces into lightly greased pan. Add remaining sugar to skillet and repeat process until all fried dough pieces have been sugared.
- To form pignolati into pinecone-shaped mounds, using a wooden spoon, pack sugared pignolati into greased teacups. Allow pignolati to set for several minutes, then remove from cups and work quickly with hands to form into mounds. Set aside to cool completely.
- To form small, bite-sized mounds, working quickly with a wooden spoon, press together 3 sugared pignolata pieces and allow to set for several minutes then set aside to cool completely. When thoroughly cooled, bite-sized sugared pignolati may be placed in waxed souffle cups. Bite-sized pignolati mounds or pinecone-shaped mounds sealed in plastic wrap may be stored in air-tight tins and kept in a cool, dry place for up to one week.
- The fried dough pieces, after being fully cooled and before being sugared, may be stored in air-tight tins and kept in a cool, dry place for up to one week.