Introduction to Virgin’s Breasts

Baked by the Nuns  

The Cassatine and Desserts baked in Convents

Cassatine e Dolci Fatti nei Conventi


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, it was in the late 1960, 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. 

Trionfo di Gola”, triumph of the gluttony made by the nuns, is a rich and elaborate dessert not sold in bakeries or pastry shops, and the many attempts by master bakers to produce it, has resulted in despicable imitations. 

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 egg less 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 egg less custard combined with a sweet squash preserve, for cannoli, and other pastries and cookies.  

My family referred to the Dominican monastery of Saint Caterina, in Piazza Bellini as “a Za’ Monaca” the Aunt Nun. We did most of our shopping for minni di virgini with ricotta, big cannoli filled with cream of goat ricotta, stuffed San Martin biscuits, cassata and other pastries. 

There is a significant difference between sfingi and minni di vergine: sfingi are typically fried, shaped like an asymmetrical sphere and served plain or filled with ricotta cream, the Paste delle vergini, virgins breasts as a rule are baked. Minni di vergine for modesty and finesse were called cassatine by the nuns; they were round pastries in the shape of a small breast, with an outer layer of pasta frolla (shortbread dough) and on the inside a combination of creams flavored with pleasant spices. 

The baked 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, marquis Beccardelli.  

The nuns preferred to bake these desserts so they would keep fresh longer and made many varieties, some filled with egg less custard and cucuzzata which is sweet squash preserve, another type filled with cannoli cream, some stuffed with marmalade or chocolate cream and seasoned with a blend of vanilla, cinnamon, ginger, clove, nutmeg and sprinkled with confectionary sugar or covered with white icing and a cherry to symbolize the center of the breast. 

Some convents added almond paste to the outer layer of pasta frolla and as filling used the cucuzzata, the sweet squash preserve.  

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. 

In the monasteries in Trapani the filling was ricotta with citron and cinnamon; in the province of Trapani the stuffing was made with egg less cream and ricotta cream in equal proportion, simply flavored with cinnamon and lemon, decorated with cherry and rainbow sprinkles. In Alcamo the breasts of virgin are now sold in pasty shops, the outside is made with a mixture of ricotta, sugar, flour and eggs; the inside filled with egg less cream, chocolate shavings flavored with lemon and cinnamon.  

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.




The Monastery’s Cassatine 

Minni di Vergine Za’ Monica Monastery of Saint Catherine in Palermo


Virgins Breasts Pastries Made in Sambuca (Sicily)


Breasts of Saint Agatha (Click for the recipe) Cassatine di Sant' Agata" - "Cassatelle di Sant'Agata

Saint Agatha is the Patron Saint of Catania. The pastries baked and made in Catania in honor of their Saint Patron are called Saint Agatha Breasts or cassatelle for modesty and respect. 
They consist of a delicate outer layer of pasta frolla (shortbread dough) in the shape of a breast, stuffed with custard, zuccata, chopped almond or pistachio, covered with icing.  Now they are baked exclusively in pastry shops 


Sfingi di San Giuseppe (Click for the recipe)– Saint Joseph Ricotta Pastries

These pastries are made by the nuns in the entire island, only for a short period, around March 19th, Saint Joseph Day.

The sfingi are made of a combination of flour and eggs and when fried the dough puffs into a hollow ball. They are split, stuffed with ricotta cream, dusted with confectionary sugar and decorated with a cherry and a candied orange peel