Preface to Virgin’s Breasts  

Baked by the Nuns     

 

Sadly, the pastry and cake shops in monasteries and convents have become an almost lost tradition caused by the evolving times, the general changes in our society and today’s fast paced world we live in. In fact there are only a few monasteries left that still bake and sell their delicacies to the public, located in secluded places, in the interior of the island.   

Last time I enjoyed monastery’s pastries was in the late 1960’s , when the nuns of the Monastery of Saint Catherine, in Piazza Bellini in Palermo were still baking their heavenly and savory desserts.    

The cloistered nuns carefully guarded their recipes and kept them secret, to hand down only to the next prioress or mother superior. Each monastery had its own recipes which to the present day are kept secret from other monasteries and from the general public.   

In Sicily, monasteries were situated in every community and from the proceeds of the sale of their baked goods, desserts, and preserved foods, the nuns made an adequate amount of income to sustain their convents.  

Many pastries and cakes prepared in bakeries have a delightful and fine taste; however the cannoli, the minni di virgini, the cassate, cakes, other specialties and biscuits made by the nuns had a special flavor which was the result of their patience and dedication in the preparation of the desserts with natural and authentic ingredients, the use of their traditional recipes and the special combination of spices and herbs. In addition they offered their goods at a reasonable price.  

    

    

The Minni di Vergine were for the first time made in the Monastery “Collegio di Maria” in Sambuca in the province of Agrigento, for the occurrence of the wedding of the area’s lord, the marquis Beccardelli.  

Suor Virginia wanted to offer to the marquees a different sweet and created in her mind a cake with the smell of jasmine like the spring air in the Valley of Belice, with layers of filling made with a cream using the delicious and rich local milk, another layer of preserve prepared with the deep green colored flesh of the zucchine growing in the vegetable garden and finally some chocolate shavings, which it was whispered to be an aphrodisiac.  

She considered a crunchy cookie to enclose the cream and to finish it with a light glace flavored with the zest of the lemons that were growing in the monastery’s garden.  

As for the form, the legend is that Suor Virginia was trying to recreate the outline of the hills, she could observe from her window, shaped like a women breasts.   

The Romans offered fritters in the form of the breast of virgin to Juno, the goddess of childbirth and of women’s fertility. We believe that because the breasts of virgin were perceived as a symbol of childbirth and women’s fertility, Suor Virginia made the decision to follow this popular credence and the minni baked by Suor Virginia- Virginia means virgin- were born: i minni ri Virginia, and later the minni di vergine: Virginia’s breasts.  

These pastries are referred as Paste delle Vergini, Virgins’ pastries in the historical novel and movie “The Leopard”, “Il Gattopardo” by Tommaso di Lampedusa, in fact, the film was set in the Palazzo Cuto’ in Santa Margherita Belice, only a few miles from the town of Sambuca. 

    

In the eastern part of Sicily, and in particular in Catania, the Saint Agatha Breasts, the local specialty, at one time baked in monasteries, now are available only in the pasticcerie, pastry shops. 

    

In Agrigento, in the Monastery of Santo Spirito, the minni di vergine were prepared with an outside containing some almond paste and filled with ricotta cream, candied fruits, diced candied pumpkin and flavored  with cinnamon and orange.  

    

Monasteries selling sweets to the public were located throughout Palermo: the monastery of la Martorana was famous for the marzipan fruits called Frutti di Martorana, other monasteries were renowned for fried pastries like the ravazzane filled with a thick meat sauce, the iris filled with ricotta cream or the teste di turco topped with an eggless custard; other convents were well-known for their specialties of the many traditional desserts.  

The monastery of Santa Maria delle Vergini, which had a retail shop in the back of the convent in Piazza Venezia, was famous for minni di virgini filled with eggless custard combined with a sweet squash preserve. 

My family referred to the Dominican monastery of Saint Caterina, in Piazza Bellini as “a Za’ Monaca” the Aunt Nun, where we did most of our shopping for Sfingi di San Joseph, cannoli filled with goats’ ricotta cream, San Martin biscuits, cassata, pastries and cookies.  

    

The Monastery’s Virgins’ Breasts Recepies:   

    

1.     Minni di Vergini- Sanbuca

2.     Baked in the Monastery of Saint Catherine in Palermo  

3.    Breasts of Saint Agatha