“Can I help you?” asked the young girl behind the counter. I had just stepped down into the sugary warmth of De Robertis in the East Village, one of hardly a handful of old Italian pastry shops left in Manhattan.
“Yeah, do you have a pastry called minni di virgini?” I replied, pulling off my wool hat covered in beads of ice.
“Uh—what?” She looked at me like I was a total moron. I feared this would happen.
“Um, they’re called minni. They are a round spongy cake covered in ricotta custard and marzipan. Usually a cherry on top.”
She stared at me blankly. Encouraged by the prayer cards taped to the walls behind the register, I took a deep breath and finally said, “They look like breasts.”
“Hold on a second, a’right?” she backed away from the register while keeping her eyes on me and called out to her co-worker, “Can you get over here?”
Another woman appeared from the seating area, slightly older and definitely more Italian looking. OK, maybe she will know. “Hi, can I help you,” she said as though it were a statement instead of a question.
Shifting my weight nervously, I began again. “I’m looking for these Sicilian pastries called minni that are made for the feast of Saint Agatha which is actually this Friday and…”
“We do Saint Joseph cream puffs, but I don’t know anything about Agatha,” she said with authority, though her flickering eyes seemed to indicate she was still scanning her memory.
The counter girl could no longer contain herself and blurted out, “She said they look like breasts!”
Sheepishly, I started to retreat. “Oh, ok. You had them last year so I thought I’d try again. But, thanks—”
“Wait, are you talking about the caza-teeny?” The counter girl directed me toward a tray just underneath the fluorescent lights of the glass counter. Squatting down, my heart leaped when I spotted a tray of sugar-glazed breasts with aroused cherry nipples. The handwritten sign read “Cassatini Siciliane.”
“Yes, that’s them!” I said, straightening myself back up.
“We sell these year-round. But I didn’t know anything about them being breasts.” The counter girl was now over her skepticism of me and seemed intrigued. And that’s all I needed to geek out with my knowledge of Italian pastry .
I explained how in Sicily these cakes are made in honor of Saint Agatha, who, like her neighbor Saint Lucy, was a Christian girl in a pagan world and was thus tortured by having her breasts torn off with pincers. (Believe it or not, that didn’t kill her. Ultimately, she was cooked on coals.) Paintings and sculptures of Saint Agatha often depict her displaying her breasts on a plate.
Gory and weird as it sounds, the feast of Saint Agatha is a gorgeous and haunting spectacle that consumes the city of Catania for two days and two nights, lighting the bleakness of February. The nearly manic celebration begins at dawn on February 4 when Agatha’s life-sized effigy, dripping in jewels collected since the 12th century, is pulled through the streets on a 40,000-pound silver carriage by a cast of 5,000 men. The soundtrack of the procession is grunting, crying, and the grinding wheels of the carriage or fercolo pushing through molten candle wax. All the while thousands scream, “Viva Sant’ Agata.”
The celebration’s roots reach back to when Catania belonged to the fertility goddess Isis and the devotion given to Saint Agatha helps ensure another year safe from an explosion of nearby Mount Etna. The breasts, known as minni di virgini, were first baked by Sicilian nuns (those naughty nuns!) and can be found abundantly around Catania in honor of their dear sister, daughter and girlfriend, sweet, beloved Agatha.
(For an exquisite account of the Feast of Saint Agatha in Catania, read The Stone Boudoir: Travels Through the Hidden Villages of Sicily by Theresa Maggio.)
Here in New York City, De Robertis seems to be the only shop making the minni, even if they are unaware of why they continue to do so. It’s both interesting and sad that they continue to make the cake, even if its genesis is long forgotten.
The ladies behind the counter ultimately thanked me for sharing with them the story of the mysterious cassatini, though they still looked a bit spooked. I took home just one and found it to be—disgusting. The sponge cake was stale, the ricotta too sweet, and the marzipan shot pains through my molars straight into my head.
Minni di Virgini Receipe
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cook time: 40 minutes
Makes 8 breasts
1 pound ricotta cheese
2 cups granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon chopped dark chocolate or chocolate chips
5 eggs, separated
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 1/4 cups flour, sifted
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoons lemon rind
8 maraschino cherries, sliced in half
In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, whip the ricotta until creamy. Mix in the sugar and vanilla, then fold in the chocolate chips. Refrigerate for at least two hours.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Grease and flour an 18-inch square cake pan or two 9-inch square baking pans.
Once more using the paddle attachment, cream the egg yolks and sugar for 2-3 minutes, until thickened and lemon-colored. Add flour a little at a time, making sure each scoop is fully incorporated before adding more. Mix in the vanilla and lemon rind.
In a clean bowl, whip the egg whites until stiff but not dry and fold into the cake batter. Pour into the prepared pan and bake for 40 minutes or until a knife or cake tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Turn out on a wire rack to cool.
When the cake is completely cool, cut 8 rounds of cake using a juice glass or round cookie cutter. These will become the base of your minni. Top each sponge cake disc with a generous dome of ricotta custard and one of the maraschino cherry halves.