Nuns, guns and buns: a scandal-filled pastry tour of Sicily

Food & drink

Nuns, guns and buns: a scandal-filled pastry tour of Sicily

It’s not all sweetness and light on the southern Italian island. We take a look at the backstories behind Sicilia's most notorious desserts...

Kate Weir

BY Kate Weir30 November 2019

Sicilian dishes prove that too many cooks invading and colonising your kitchen needn’t spoil your broth. Each arrival to this island has tweaked its revered culinary style: Romans brought honey; Arabs the nuts, fruit and spices; the Normans added pâtisserie; and the Spanish brought cocoa from the New World. However, it’s not all sweetness and light: these confections are crafted from an eyebrow-raising recipe of corruption and mystery with a liberal sprinkling of Catholic fetishes. Time to don our aprons and get your hands dirty in Sicily



Aka ‘the accessory’

What are they?
Pastry tubes fried in lard and filled with ricotta and candied orange peel. They earned a shout-out in The Godfather when mobster Clemenza refuses to let a pesky hit slow down a dessert run, uttering ‘Leave the gun, take the cannoli’ – priorities, Cosa Nostra’s got them.
What’s the sweet and lowdown?
If you think they’re – er – phallic, it’s not just your dirty mind: the first cannoli resembled menhirs (member-shaped fertility stones), and they’re now synonymous with spring festivals (and weddings). So much so, a witness’s court testimony was once deemed inadmissible when they referred to eating cannoli in August (when the heat would make the ricotta go off). Shady? Well, the sweet’s name derives from canna, meaning cane sugar, or the barrel of a gun…
Where can I get them?
Fratelli Rosciglione and Spinnato in Palermo are widely renowned.


Aka ‘the stranger’

What are they?
These soft, finger-shaped biscuits are nicknamed ‘dead man’s bones’. They’re made from almond-infused dough and Sicilians coat them in chocolate to give to children on All Souls’ Day (happy holidays, kids!)
What’s the sweet and lowdown?
These cookies conjoin Sicilians’ pragmatic view of death and fondness for saintly relics – although they’re reliably tastier than the latter. The Celts were partly responsible, too: Romans adopted the Celtic festival of Samhain (later Halloween), called theirs Lemuria and made it the custom to eat, then spit out, black beans denoting dead souls. The cookies serve a similar function, similarly appeasing and revering a family’s ancestors.
Where can I try it?
They’re mostly available around All Souls’ Day (2 November), but their popularity has convinced some pasticceria to serve them at other times. Try L’Angolo Delle Dolcezze in Cefalù.



Aka ‘the deceiver’

What are they?
Marzipan fruit and veg, moulded and painted in hyper-realistic style using vegetable dye. They’re an Easter favourite, alongside creepily placid marzipan lambs (recalling the ‘sacrifice of the innocents’ – again, happy holidays, kids!).
What’s the sweet and lowdown?
Arab settlers brought almond trees and a marzipan recipe after the Saracen invasion. Legend has it, the frutta emerged later when Monastero della Martorana’s nuns devised a wacky scheme to fool a very-important bishop (VIB): decorating their barren orchards with low-hanging marzipan lies. Nuns began competing to make the most bishop-fooling cake, alongside figures called pupa di cena. Nowadays, frutta are given to kids on All Saints’ Day to teach them about trust issues.
Where can I get them?
Ex-nun Maria Grammatico started her pasticceria in 1963, with just three pounds of almonds. Today, her frutta are rumoured to be the best.


Aka ‘the cheeky one’

Sigh, ok what are they?
We’re beginning to suspect there was a little more than praying going on in Sicilian convents… These buns are filled with blancmange and pistachio paste, then sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon and fried.
What’s the sweet and lowdown?
You’re a mediaeval nun: you’ve recited the morning prayers and affixed fake oranges to the trees outside – what now? If you’re the Palermitan nuns at Santissima Trinità del Cancelliere, you bake the precursor to bachelorette-party sustenance: buns that look like, ahem, buns. By the 16th century, the diocese of Mazara del Vallo halted the sale of sweets because baking ‘distracted the nuns’; by the 19th century, the shape had been toned down to something less risqué.
Where can I try it?
The diocese still holds some sway: these buns are elusive. Scour pasticcerias on saintly feast days, craft your own or snack on the sweet’s nearest relation, the sfinci doughnut. We’re taken with the ones at Palermo’s Pasticceria Cappello.


Aka ‘the enigma’

What is it?
A mythical hot mess of a cake – blancmange sandwiched in layers of sponge, coated in marzipan, then haphazardly sprinkled with pistachios and candied fruit – the more discordant the better – plonk an apricot on top, sprinkle with jasmine essence, et voilà
What’s the sweet and lowdown?
It’s immortalised in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s dynastic novel The Leopard. However, this splodgy testament to sweet-toothed hubris technically doesn’t exist anymore (cue X-Files theme). The authentic recipe died with its last fount, a Sister Margherita of the Monastero delle Vergini. It may be a good thing – the cake’s name means ‘triumph of greed’ – perhaps a subtle hint that blancmange shouldn’t be used so abundantly in mortal desserts.
Where can I get it?
For those not blessed in the art of communing with the dead, Sicilian restaurants have updated this ugly duckling: Flambé in Palermo has groomed it into a sleek dense sweet.



Aka ‘di scandalo’

Um, what?
Brace yourselves. Saint Agatha’s breasts (sometimes called ‘virgin’s breasts’) are curvaceous sponge cakes coated in ricotta custard and marzipan, then topped with a cherry. Naughty. The most unsettling are tinted pink. They resemble, well, you can guess…
Sorry, what?
Christian Saint Agatha (who hailed from Catania) refused Roman governer Quintianus’ proposal of marriage, so he decided to – ahem – detach her breasts. Artists in the 16th century portrayed her carrying her ex-bosom on a platter, which gave Sicilian nuns yet another stroke of genius. These moreish mammaries are one of the few sweets still crafted in convents.
You know, I had a lot of cannoli earlier, and I’m kinda full…
It’s an unsavoury story, but the cakes are delizioso and toothache-sweet. The best are to be found in Catania’s cafés around Agatha’s feast day on 5 February, when there are raucous processions through the streets. The marzipan should be pliant, the ricotta farm-fresh.

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