The Best Sicilian Desserts

Manos Chatzikonstantis

In search of a mythical cake he once read about, the author crisscrosses
the island of Sicily, tasting all manner of cannoli, biscotti, marzipan and more.

In a memorable ballroom scene in The Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s
1958 novel set in 1860s Sicily, a weary Don Fabrizio, prince of Salina, leaves
the dance floor and wanders over to the dessert table. As he surveys the lavish
display of sweets, biscuits and ices, his eyes fall on a trionfo di gola—an
extravagantly rich cake covered with candied fruit and sprinkled with pistachios.
The prince (played by Burt Lancaster in Luchino Visconti’s 1963 film version)
pauses briefly and then, alas, moves on to another dessert farther down the
table.

That tantalizing glimpse of the trionfo di gola, which I translate
here, inadequately, as “triumph of the palate,” lingered in my mind
long after I read The Leopard as a teenager during a trip to Sicily.
The name alone evoked a sensuous, vaguely sinful creation of such supreme delight
that I found it impossible to forget.

Over the years on return trips to Sicily, I often asked about it, only to receive
vague, disappointing replies. Few people had heard of the trionfo di gola, and those who had had never actually seen one, let alone tasted it. I came to
wonder whether it was simply a literary invention. On my latest visit to Sicily,
last spring, I gave myself a week to unveil the mystery. My quest became a fascinating
journey into the world of Sicilian desserts.

Sicily has always been the land of sweetmeats. The ancient Greeks, who first
colonized the island, made delicious pastries with almonds and honey. In the
early Middle Ages, the Arabs introduced sugarcane—a pivotal innovation—as
well as a taste for sherbets and ices. The Spanish brought cacao paste from
the New World. Later, the Swiss and French pâtissiers employed in the great
Sicilian houses contributed their creative panache. But it is hard to imagine
how all these disparate strands would have come together so harmoniously if
not for the cloistered nuns in countless convents who perfected the art of dessert-making
over the centuries.

I started my weeklong tour by driving almost 200 miles from Palermo, on the
north coast, to Noto, in the southeast, to meet Corrado Assenza, the owner of
Caffè Sicilia and arguably one of Italy’s best pastry chefs. In Noto,
a beautiful baroque town overlooking the Ionian Sea, the façades of the
churches and palaces are so rich, they seem to be carved out of sponge cake.
Caffè Sicilia sits on the shady side of the Corso, facing the steps that
lead up to the Cathedral of San Nicolò, and just inside stands a vitrine
filled with gorgeous pastries. These are Assenza’s jewels—a mix
of tradition and innovation. I recognized the faccioni, the typical
biscotti in the shape of an angel face, and the rosy conchiglie, marzipan
scallop shells with a citron filler. But the other pastries looked unfamiliar,
even a little exotic.

Assenza, who studied entomology at the School of Agriculture in Bologna before
returning home to take over the family pastry business, emerged from his workshop
in the back of the café wearing scrubs and clogs, like a scientist taking
a break from the lab. A slight man with a shock of salt-and-pepper hair over
dark eyes, he had the affable manner of someone who is happy doing what he does.

Though I hadn’t met Assenza at the time, I had been to Caffè Sicilia
15 years earlier and had tasted an almond granita so delicious that its bittersweet
fragrance went straight to my brain, crowding out the street bustle, the smell
of fresh coffee and buns, the shuffling of waiters among the tables. When I
described this vivid memory, Assenza replied that, in fact, his almond granita
had evolved since then: He had improved his almond-grinding technique and was
able to produce a much finer paste. “I am always pushing the boundaries
of what we can accomplish here, using our knowledge and skills to bring out
the most from raw materials we gather locally: almonds, of course, but also
honey, jasmine, oranges, lemons, citrons, pistachios, mulberries and, in the
summer, peaches and apricots,” Assenza said. “I want to bring my
customers and my ingredients in the closest possible contact, even as I become
invisible.”

Assenza walked me over to the vitrine and drew my attention to some of his
newest creations. “This one I’ve named equilibrio dinamico [‘dynamic balance’],” he said, pointing to a multilayered
concoction of cream, hazelnut sponge cake, pumpkin puree, white-peach marmalade
and a sprinkling of dark chocolate. Sometimes Assenza is inspired by the ingredients
at hand; at other times, he is driven by an idea. He invented tempo del
riposo,
or “resting time,” as an ode to relaxation. It is made
of three elements: a jasmine gelée, black rice dressed with a light almond
cream and a bancha green-tea gelée. Assenza has been traveling
to Japan regularly since the 1990s. “After a long day at work, I would
return to my hotel room and rest with a cup of bancha,” he says.
“I wanted tempo del riposo to recapture that experience.”

The more he delved into the intricacies of contemporary Sicilian pastry-making,
the more I felt my quest for the trionfo di gola was vaguely anachronistic.
When I finally brought it up, he stared at me blankly. “Trionfo di
gola
? I’ve never heard of it. Perhaps in western Sicily….”
he suggested rather unconvincingly.

The next morning, before leaving Noto, I stopped by Caffè Sicilia for
a taste of Assenza’s ultimate almond granita. “It is the perfect
way to start the day,” he told me. “Salts, minerals, water, proteins
and no cholesterol.” Following his advice, I ordered a brioche to go with
it. In the early morning light, the ochre of the baroque façades stood
out starkly against the deep blue sky. I tore off a piece of the brioche and
dipped it into the cool, softly melting nectar. If the gods have breakfast,
I thought, this surely must be it.

The 25-mile road west from Noto to Modica, my next destination, wound gently
through the open countryside. There were no garish billboards or ugly houses—just
old farmsteads set among citrus and almond groves and gnarly carob trees.

Modica, the capital of a large county under Spanish rule from the 16th to the
18th century, is another gem in a string of splendid baroque towns in southeastern
Sicily. Narrow, winding streets lead to little squares with pretty churches
and wide vistas of the town. The scent of jasmine is everywhere.

Modica is famous for its chocolate. The Spaniards ground cacao beans on a curved
stone called a metate and made bars of cacao paste that were then grated
over food or liquefied and consumed as a beverage, in the Aztec fashion. In
Modica, until recently, the ciucculattaru, or chocolate man, still
made the rounds with a metate, grinding cacao beans for customers as well as
selling bars of pure cacao.

At the Antica Dolceria Bonajuto, in front of Modica’s Chiesa Madre di
San Pietro, Franco Ruta and his son, Pierpaolo, carry on the family chocolate
business started by their forefather, Francesco Bonajuto, in 1880. Today they
import most of their cacao paste from West Africa, but they have placed an antique
metate at the entrance of the shop to remind customers of the age-old link to
the New World. Modica chocolate has a granular texture. Because the cacao paste
is heated at a temperature as low as 45 degrees Celsius instead of the standard
90 degrees Celsius, “the sugar crystals don’t dissolve,” Pierpaolo
Ruta told me, “which gives our chocolate its natural crunchiness. The
low temperature also enables us to preserve aromas of the cacao bean that would
otherwise be lost.” Leonardo Sciascia, the great Sicilian author, once
wrote that after eating Modica chocolate, one has the impression of having tasted
“the archetype.” All others pale in comparison.

At Bonajuto the chocolate is 65 percent cacao paste, 34 percent sugar and one
percent spice: orange, lemon, cardamom, marjoram, nutmeg, chili pepper, white
pepper or salt from the ponds on the island of Mozia, off Sicily’s west
coast. After my sugar binge at Caffè Sicilia, I left Bonajuto with a single
salt-flavored bar and headed two hours northeast to Catania. On the road, I
took a bite and thought of Mozia’s blinding white saltworks.

On All Souls’ Day, the pastry shops in Catania, the port city at the
foot of Mount Etna, on Sicily’s east coast, sell large amounts of ossa
di morti,
or “bones of the dead,” cookies made with almond
flour, cloves and honey. As far as devotional pastries go, the minne di
Sant’Agata,
or “breasts of Saint Agatha,” are even more
macabre. Saint Agatha, Catania’s patron saint, was a Christian martyr
whose breasts were cut off. Made from sponge cake, almond paste and ricotta,
the minne are shaped like breasts, with a candied-cherry nipple on
top.

Vincenza Lo Faro, known as Nonna Vincenza, is the most popular pastrymaker
in town. She learned to make pastries from a nun in her hometown of Agira, in
central Sicily; after she married, she moved east to Catania, where she continued
to bake for family and friends. On the day she buried her husband, 20 years
ago, she decided to open a shop in an old candle store behind the cathedral.
Now 79, she still puts in a full day of work, but her son, Paolo Pistone, runs
the business. He sells more than 30,000 minne a year, mostly on Saint
Agatha’s feast day, February 5. “The sacred and the profane often
mix when it comes to Sicilian pastries,” Pistone said with a knowing smile.

I thought again of the scene in The Leopard. After eyeing the trionfo
di gola,
the prince’s gaze moves down the dessert table “to
those shameless cakes...that profane caricature of Saint Agatha’s mutilated
breasts,” Tomasi di Lampedusa writes. The prince asks for a serving, then
wonders why the Holy Office hasn’t yet banned them. “Sold by convents,
devoured at dances...What is one to think?” the book continues.

What, indeed. Inevitably, one wonders what those cloistered nuns were up to,
kneading and baking such explicit pastries. It was, to be sure, one of the few
ways they had to make money. But was the making of sweetmeats also a way to
satisfy other, unfulfilled appetites?

On the drive northwest from Catania back to Palermo, I stopped about halfway
at Tenuta Regaleali, a wine estate in the rolling hills of central Sicily, where
chef Fabrizia Lanza runs the Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School, named for her
mother, who started it in 1989. My visit coincided with Lanza’s birthday,
which she had decided to celebrate by inviting a few friends for lunch. At the
end of a merry meal, she brought out a splendid cassata and set it on the table
with a smile of satisfaction.

The cassata is the noblest and best-known Sicilian dessert. Some say the name
comes from qas’ah, an old Arab word for a terracotta mold; Lanza
traces the word’s origins to caseus, the Latin word for cheese.
Thought to date back at least a thousand years, it’s made with fresh ricotta,
sponge cake, marzipan and candied fruits. Lanza learned her version from her
mother (see the Sicilian Cassata recipe below), who learned it from a friend.
“The freshness of the ricotta is key,” she said, “but we also
hold back on the sugar and add lemon juice to the icing for an extra touch of
acidity.”

I asked Lanza if she knew anything about the trionfo di gola. To my
surprise, she did. “I remember the older generations used to order it
at the Monastero delle Vergini,” she said, referring to one of the historic
convents in Palermo. “You should ask my friend Mary Taylor Simeti. I know
she tasted one years ago.” At last, a clue. The next morning, I drove
off.

Simeti, an American expat and the author of Pomp and Sustenance, the
classic English language book on Sicilian cooking, first came to Sicily in the
1960s. Today she and her husband live on a farm near the town of Alcamo, among
the vineyards and orchards of northwestern Sicily, about half an hour away from
the beautiful ruins of the Greek temple of Segesta.

Over a light lunch of cheese, fava beans and artichokes, I listened to Simeti
reminisce about her experience with the trionfo di gola. “I believe
no one makes it anymore, but 20 years ago, the nuns at the Monastero delle Vergini
still did,” she said. “It came in the shape of a cone, with an apricot
planted on top. I was surprised at how clumsy it looked, but the balance of
flavors was perfect.” As far as she could remember, it had five layers
of sponge cake, each separated by a layer of blancmange; it was covered with
candied fruit, sprinkled with pistachios and had a faint scent of jasmine. “It
reminded me of an Arab-Norman chapel,” she said, “with its rich
light and colorful mosaics.”

Back in Palermo, I walked over to the Monastero delle Vergini. In its heyday
it was one of the richest convents in Sicily; the important families of the
city sent their unmarried daughters there with generous dowries. Today the large
grated windows make it look like an abandoned fortress, or a prison.

Sister Ida, a small, wizened nun, came to the grate. “No, we no longer
make pastries,” she said. “There used to be at least 50 of us here.
Of those, 15 would make pastries and cakes to be sold to outside clients. Today
there are just three of us left, and we are all over 80.” I mentioned
trionfo di gola and Sister Ida’s wrinkled face brightened. “Sister
Margherita invented that cake after the war. We used to sell plenty.”
I asked her if she had the original recipe. “Oh no, Sister Margherita
never told us. She always said the trionfo di gola had to die with
her.”

I thought I had finally resolved the mystery, but Sister Ida had unwittingly
introduced a new one. If The Leopard was set in the 1860s, how could
it have featured a cake invented after the Second World War? I came up with
two possible answers: Either Sister Margherita’s recipe was the last version
of a much older dessert; or Tomasi di Lampedusa, having himself tasted trionfo
di gola,
could not resist including it in his great work of fiction.

As for me, I realized with a pang of regret that the small place I had left
in my stomach for this legendary cake would remain empty after all.

Sicilian Desserts Address Book

Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School Courses start at $200; Tenuta Regaleali, Sclafani Bagni; 39-380/754-1365; annatascalanza.com.

Antica Dolceria Bonajuto 159 Corso Umberto I, Modica; 39-0932/941-225; bonajuto.it.

Caffè Sicilia 125 Corso Vittorio Emanuele III, Noto; 39-0931/835-013.

I Dolci di Nonna Vincenza 7 Piazza San Placido, Catania; 39-095/715-1844; dolcinonnavincenza.it.

Sicilian Cassata Recipe

Adapted from a recipe by Fabrizia Lanza

10 to 12 servings

Sponge cake
6 large eggs, at room temperature
2/3 cup sugar
1 tsp finely grated orange or lemon zest
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup cake flour, sifted

Syrup
3/4 cup warm water
5 tbsps sugar
2 tbsps Grand Marnier

Filling
1/4 cup sugar
12 ounces fresh ricotta cheese (about 1 1/2 cups)

Marzipan
Green food coloring or gel
One 7-ounce tube marzipan

Icing
2 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
2 to 3 tbsps fresh lemon juice
1/2 tsp pure lemon extract

Candied fruit, for decoration

Make the sponge cake: Preheat the oven to 350. Butter and
flour a 9-inch springform pan. Put the eggs in the bowl of a mixer and beat
at medium-high speed for 5 minutes. Add the sugar, zest and salt and beat at
high speed for about 15 minutes, until the mixture forms a ribbon when poured.
In two or three parts, gently fold in the flour. Pour the batter into the springform
pan and smooth the surface. Bake the cake for 25 to 30 minutes, until a cake
tester inserted into the center comes out clean. Let the cake cool completely
on a rack.

Make the syrup: Pour the water into a small bowl. Add the
sugar and Grand Marnier and stir to dissolve the sugar.

Make the filling: In a medium bowl, stir the sugar into the
ricotta cheese.

Color the marzipan: Wearing rubber gloves, knead a small drop
of the food coloring into the marzipan until it is evenly colored pale green.
Assemble the cassata: Line a 9-inch deep-dish pie plate with plastic wrap. Divide
the marzipan into thirds and roll each piece into a 3-by-11-inch strip, about
1/4 inch thick. Line the side of the pie plate with the marzipan strips. Press
them against the sides to form a smooth layer. Unmold the cake and trim off
the crust. Cut the cake vertically into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Put a layer of
slices on the bottom of the pie plate and brush with 4 to 5 tablespoons of the
syrup. Spread evenly with ricotta filling. Carefully place another layer of
cake slices on top and brush with the rest of the syrup. Cover with plastic
wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or overnight.

Make the icing: Sift half of the confectioners’ sugar
into a bowl. Add half of the lemon juice and all of the lemon extract and stir,
breaking up any lumps. Sift the remaining sugar into the bowl and add the rest
of the lemon juice. Thin the icing with a little water, if necessary, until
it is smooth and shiny and can be spread easily.

Ice the cassata: Remove the plastic wrap on top and invert
the cassata onto a platter. Carefully peel off the plastic wrap. Gently spread
the icing over the top of the cassata in an even layer, spreading it just to
the edge of the marzipan. Refrigerate uncovered until the glaze is set, about
15 minutes. Decorate the top with candied fruit.