by Gordon Nary
The legend of St. Agatha combined with the Sicilian penchant for the outrageous makes the celebration of St. Agatha's feastday one of the most memorable religious feasts of the year. St. Agatha was a third century martyr who died in 252 at age 15. According to a sixth century document, a local magistrate named Quinctianus tried to blackmail her into sex in exchange for not charging her with being a Christian. When Agatha refused, she was imprisoned in a brothel but refused to cooperate. Then she was beaten, her breasts were cut off, and she was then rolled over live coals.
To commemorate Agatha's unshakable religious convictions that gave her the strength to suffer these tortures, the Sicilians had St. Agatha named as the patron saint of bell founders because of the Sicilian perceived resemblance between the shape of bells and the shape of breasts.
The breast-conscious Sicilians celebrate St. Agatha's feastday with a cream-filled pastry called Ie Minni di Sant'Agata (St Agatha's Breasts) or Ie Minni di Virgini (Breasts of the Virgin) which were first made in Palermo's Monastero delia Virgini. Because of their love of the the name Minni di Virgini, Sicilians often apply it to any small round cake. They also have a penchant for naming foods after body parts since they also have a another specialty called fedde del cancelliere (chancellor's buttocks).
Le Minni di Sant'Agata were featured in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's novel about the changes in Sicilian life and society during the Risorgimento titled, Il Gattopardo (The Leopard.) when they were served at a party to Prince Don Fabrizio Salino who noted that the "shameless 'virgins' cakes shaped like breasts looked like a profane caricature of St. Agatha" since many of the paintings of her show Agatha holding a plate with her breasts.. Don Fabrizio muses "St. Agatha's sliced-off breasts sold by convents, devoured at dances." Unfortunately, that scene was deleted from the beautiful 1963 film adaptation by Luchino Visconti with Burt Lancaster as Don Fabrizio.
St. Agatha is the patron saint of Catania, the capital of the Sicilian province of the same name, situated on the eastern side of Mount Etna where she is also invoked for protection against eruptions of the volcano. There is an annual St. Agatha festival in Catania from February 3 to 5.
Following a mass at dawn, the statue of St. Agatha that houses her relics is placed on a fercolo, a 40,000 pound silver carriage, that passes through the eight neighborhoods as thousands of the city's residents turn out to see the spectacle and participate in the festival activities. The streets are crowded with stalls and booths where all sorts of pastries are sold, and mobile grids where horse meat is roasted. (No roast horse recipes are featured here). Agatha is also venerated as the patron saint of Malta since her intercession is reported to have saved Malta from Turkish invasion in 1551.
Le Minni di Virgini (Breasts of the Virgin)
1 cup milk
1/4 cup white sugar
1/2 tsp almond flavoring
3 egg yolks
2 TB flour
1 TB unsalted butter
pinch of salt
4 candied cherries cut in half
1 cup sugar
3 egg yolks
4 cups sifted flour
3 TB sugar for sprinkling formed pastries
Place the milk and half of the sugar in a saucepan over medium heat.
Combine the egg yolks and almond flavoring in a bowl and whisk until light in color. Add in the flour and the salt, mix to combine.
When the milk just begins to boil, remove from heat and remove vanilla bean. Very slowly dribble the hot milk into the yolk mixture, stirring all the time. When about half of the milk has been added. place all of the yolk mixture into the saucepan over medium heat. Using a spatula or a whisk, mix the pastry cream as it heats, making sure to reach all of the corners of the pan when you stir. Bring the mixture to a boil. Let boil for about 1 minute, stirring constantly. The mixture will be thick.
Remove from heat and add the butter. Place into a bowl and cover directly with plastic wrap to stop a skin from forming on the cream. Chill and use within a few days.
Put cherries aside for assembly.
Cream the butter and sugar. Stir in the egg yolk Add the flour and work the dough with your hands until well blended and smooth. Chill until firm.
Preheat oven to 425º F.
Divide the dough into seven pieces and roll them into rectangles about 6"x4"x1/4". Place 3 TB pastry cream on one half of the rectangle. Put the halved candied cherry in the middle. Fold the other half over it. Seal it well and then cut out a circular shape about three inches round with a glass or pastry cutter and shape into a cone (see illustration). Sprinkle with sugar.
Bake for 12 minutes or until lightly browned.
© 2011 Gordon Nary