What the Fork?: Sweetbreads vs. sweet breads

By Wynter Holden

Occasionally I stumble across what I playfully call "sniper" ingredients - foods so deceptively named that it's like a shot through the heart when you discover what they really are. Case in point: sweetbreads.

Sounds like a no-brainer. S-W-E-E-T bread. Duh! I knew that sweetbreads are often used in French or French-inspired cooking, so I immediately leapt to pastry dough. My mind conjured images of Hawaiian rolls, or better yet, a zeppole.

For the uninitiated, zeppoles (or zeppoli, depending where you hail from) are Italian fried dough balls dipped in powdered sugar. To me, they're ambrosia. One whiff of a zeppole sends me into a sugary rage, frothing at the mouth and galumphing towards the vendor like Homer Simpson to a donut. Mmm...zeppole! Growing up in New York, we had these Sicilian beauties every chance we could get. County fairs, traveling carnivals, the Jersey boardwalk...

Sadly, I haven't seen them since. So when I spotted sweetbreads on the menu at GreekTown Restaurant a while back, my salivary glands kicked into overdrive.

Then something unusual happened, something that started me towards the finale that would dash my sweet doughy dreams. Sweetbreads cooked with mushrooms in red wine sauce. Whoa! Where's the powdered sugar? I toyed with asking the staff, but (wisely) chose to keep my mouth shut and stay in fried dough fantasyland.

A few months later, when a friend of mine from New Orleans mentioned preparing sweetbreads for a family dinner, I asked him what they were. He laughed and said it really defies explanation. I would have to pop over and help. Visions of sugarplums (or rather, sugar coated plum-sized bread) dancing in my head, I agreed.

Imagine my shock (no, horror) when he pulled what looked like a shriveled, glossy chunk of liver from a Tupperware container of milk and tossed it in a pan. Ugh. My friend starting laughing so hard that tears poured onto his cheeks. Ha ha. The joke's on me. (My lunch was almost on him, so who would've been laughing then?)

He explained that "sweetbread" is a euphemistic term for the pancreas or thymus (a gland near the heart) of an animal; usually a calf, young cow or lamb. Sweetbreads have a short shelf life of 24 hours and, according to my friend, taste like very mild bacon. They're often breaded and fried in plum-sized balls. Uh-huh.

I'll never look at a zeppole the same way again.

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Wynter Holden
Contact: Wynter Holden