Those naughty Sicilians! Leave it to Italy, the land that brought us Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida, to have a sweet called “virgin’s breast.”
Whether strolling down the street in Catania, Agrigento or Palermo, peering into the window of the pasticceria we immediately recognized the famous minne di virgine:
This cupcake-sized confection is actually a smaller version of the ubiquitous cassata. Give me a cannoli any day, but Sicilians love their cassata, a sticky-sweet cake layered with sponge cake, ricotta, chocolate bits, marzipan and dried fruit. Whew!
Yes, they love their sweets. Sicilians must not bake in their own kitchens, though, because every high street has several pasticcerias, their windows piled high with lemon or honey biscuits, candied oranges and knots of pastry filled with figs. We saw mounds of local specialties, such as mostata (grapes boiled with wood ash and seasoned with raisins, almonds and orange), bright marzipan fruits, ricotta cakes, tarts and always, always treats made of almonds or pistachios.
In Agrigento, we kept hearing about a mysterious, almost mythical cookie, cuscusu di pistachi made by the nuns of the Abbazia di Santo Spirito. The sisters closely guard their ancient recipe and the cookies are available only in their monastery. To get them, you knock on a heavy wooden door, then a tiny nun passes a sack of pastries to you through a grate. People rhapsodize about the biscotti‘s taste and texture, saying that, though they’re made by the sisters, the cookies are so heavenly they were surely inspired by the Holy Spirit.
We weren’t able to visit the monastery (long story involving stress levels and one-way streets.), but Francesco directed us to Pasticceria Infurna in downtown Agrigento which specializes in replicating the cookie. So we made our own pilgrimage, straight down the hill to Giuseppe’s shop where his smiling son gave us their scallop-shaped version of the nuns’ cookie:
Maybe it was church bells! Because if anything rivals the number of pastry shops in Sicily, it’s the number of churches. And even today religion and history are still closely intertwined with art and food in the island’s daily life.
In our visits to museums and churches, we noticed an unusual recurring theme of spunky Sicilian girls willing to undergo mutilation rather than denounce their Christian faith. Beautiful Santa Lucia, born around 300 A.D. in Siracusa, dedicated her life to Christ -firmly against her Greek mother’s wishes. According to legend, rather than marry, Lucia gouged out her eyes and presented them to her betrothed on a plate. Christians worldwide -and especially in Sweden- still celebrate her feast day on December 13.
Lucia inspired a painting by Caravaggio which hangs in the Piazza Duomo in Ortygia. Right down the street we saw cookies, known as the “Eyes of Santa Lucia”:
Even more famous, Saint Agatha was born a few miles away in Catania, 75 years before Lucia. Also rich and noble, 15 year old Agatha refused to marry her pagan Roman suitor, Quinitianus, who in retaliation tortured the girl, cut off body parts and sentenced her to death. To this day, Agatha remains one of the most important martyrs in the Catholic faith and the patron saint of several cities.
In deeply religious Sicily, of course Agatha has a namesake dessert! Commemorating the organs severed from her body, it can be found in every pastry shop on the island and is known as “virgin’s breast”:
Well, well…Traveling sometimes teaches you as much about your own culture as the one you’re visiting.
In honor of the sisters of Abbazia di Santo Spirito and Saint Agatha who reminds me not to have such naughty thoughts, here’s a recipe for Italian cookies chock full of pistachios. It’s equally as good using almonds and almond meal. And definitely better the day after they’re baked.
- 2 cups pistachio meal (or 1 cup pistachio meal and 1 cup almond meal) (see Notes)
- ⅔ cup sugar
- 2 large egg whites, room temperature
- pinch of salt
- 2 tablespoons fruit jam, smoothed by pulsing for a few seconds in a food processor
- a few drops of pure almond extract
- 1 large egg white
- ½-3/4 cup sliced pistachios, coarsely chopped
- In a large bowl, stir together the powdered nuts and sugar. In a separate bowl, whip the egg whites with a pinch of salt until they form soft peaks. (They should not be stiff, but the consistency of softly whipped cream.)
- Fold the beaten whites into the nut mixture (don't worry when they lose volume), then fold in the jam and a drop or two of almond extract. Mix the dough until it comes together in the smooth ball.
- Preheat the oven to 325ºF. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
- Take pieces of dough (roughly 1 tablespoon) and roll each into a ball. Then roll them in your hands to make ovals. You can also bake them in rounds, if you prefer.
- In a small bowl, briskly stir the egg white with a fork for about ten seconds. Put the chopped nuts on a plate. Roll each piece of cookie dough in the egg white and place it in the dish containing the nuts.
- Roll and press the dough into the nuts. Next put them on the baking sheet, evenly spaced apart.
- Bake the cookies for 20 to 25 minutes, rotating the baking sheets in the oven so the cookies bake evenly, until the cookies and nuts are light golden brown. Let cool before serving.
- Pistachio meal is simply powdered pistachio nuts. Using an equal amount of blanched nuts (or in my case raw, because I'm lazy), blitz the nuts in a food processor until powdered, occasionally scraping down the sides of the bowl.
- Almond meal can also be prepared the same way, although I easily found it in the local specialty grocery store.