Trays of pastries dripping with honey, cream-filled cannoli, and cakes shaped like… breasts?! All of these Italian desserts have decidedly sensual connotations, but their origins are surprisingly pure. Danielle Oteri explains.
Plato, plumbing, and pastry might not be around today if not for Italian monks and nuns, who are credited with saving Western culture in the tumultuous centuries known as the Dark Ages. As barbarian hordes conquered and reshaped western Europe, monasteries and convents became safe havens. Classical literature was protected, studied, and translated by scholar monks. They preserved medicinal knowledge from the ancient world and used Roman plumbing systems to pull water through their cloister fountains. Nuns took in orphans and raised them. (Esposito, meaning “exposed,” is a common Italian surname given to babies left on the doorsteps of convents.) They also baked elaborate, labor-intensive pastries from ancient recipes that they sold to the public to support themselves.
In the early 17th century, the nuns of Naples were famous for their sweets and each convent had a specialty. Hundreds of churches were woven into the labyrinthine streets of the port city, side by side with palaces painted as brightly as Easter eggs. Brides of Jesus lived their introspective lives with only stone walls separating them from the vibrant life of ancient Naples, just entering its Golden Age. From the outside, people knew the nuns were there, holding space for God with lives of prayerful purity so that the napoletane might be spared from more plague, war, or an eruption of Vesuvius. But a more sensory reminder would be the sugary aroma that surely wafted from convent ovens.
The public procured the nuns’ delectable pastries through a barred window or a wheel like you might see today at a bank teller’s window, never even glimpsing the faces of the humble sisters. Recipes were trade secrets and the nuns’ baking production was often seasonal or timed to a holiday, which may explain the long-held preference in Italy for buying desserts rather than making them at home.
It was during this time that sfogliatelle were invented, supposedly by accident. The story goes that a nun was experimenting with a bit of leftover semolina flour soaked in milk. She added candied fruit, wrapped it all between two pieces of flaky pastry softened with lard, and formed it into the shape of a monk’s hood. A century later, sfogliatelle were the specialty of a confectioner’s shop on the tony Via Toledo—except now they were referred to as a shell, a popular motif in Rococo architecture and in a city whose artistic output was rivaled only by Paris.
At Christmas, nuns made struffoli to give to the aristocracy as a thank-you for their generosity to the poor (and the convents) throughout the year. These fried balls of dough flavored with citrus zest and bathed in hot honey are still enjoyed in Italian immigrant communities around the world. Their unusual name derives from the Greek word “strongoulos” and recall the city’s Greek legacy: local myth is that the siren Parthenope cried so much over losing the love of the sailor Odysseus that her tears formed the bay of Naples.
Further south, Sicilian nuns passed on the legacy of 9th-century North African Arab rule via the beloved cannoli. Legend has it that cannoli originated in a harem where a cream-filled, banana-shaped pastry was made to honor the sultan’s… gifts. After the Normans conquered Sicily, nuns inherited cannoli production. (It has also been suggested that the concubines actually became nuns in order to continue their communal life.) Neither story can be substantiated, but it’s certain that during and after the Middle Ages, nuns sold cannoli during Carnevale and the cream-filled tube was considered a fertility symbol, of which there were many during pre-Lenten, pre-vernal celebrations. Phallic symbols were especially useful in warding off the evil eye.
Though made for pious purposes, one of the most arousing pastries made by nuns are minni di virgini, sugar-glazed breast-shaped cakes topped with cherry nipples. Made in Catania in honor of Saint Agatha’s torture and martyrdom, minni remain popular today, especially on February 5, when the city celebrates its sacred sister and daughter. Essentially a version of the classic cassata siciliana, the ingredients of minni today recall Sicily’s Arab heritage via the use of marzipan, and Spanish rule via the use of pan di Spagna cake.
Today, there are far fewer active convents in Italy, and many of the nuns’ most famous confections have long been passed to secular bakers. (And I’m certain that thousands of others of recipes have been sadly lost.) There is, however, one thrilling relic of this tradition in the town of Erice in Western Sicily: a pastry shop called Maria Grammatico.
Maria was raised in the convent of San Carlo and learned the secret art of pastry making from the cloistered nuns who cared for her. She left the convent with no other skills but baking, and eventually opened her own shop where she makes almond-based pastries with the same techniques employed for at least five centuries. Her story was chronicled in the book Bitter Almonds by Mary Taylor Simeti, and the bounty of the internet makes her work available online and even on Facebook.
It’s impossible not to wonder how the pastry-making nuns felt about their decadent, lascivious, cream-filled goods, especially in contrast to their lives of austerity, order, and chastity. But curiosities abound in the remains of ancient convents and monasteries, confounding even scholars who study their deeper meanings.
A perfect example exists at The Cloisters in New York, where elaborate capitals from a French monastery called San Michel-de-Cuxa are displayed. Carved in the early 12th century, the capitals display squatting monkeys, hissing fu dogs, beer-bellied giants holding parrots by their necks, and at least one twin-tailed mermaid. Historians cite influences from moralizing tales (think Aesop’s fables) and textiles imported from Asia that traveled the Silk Road. There is no consensus as to why such non-pious figures would exist in a place where monks lived their lives solely dedicated to prayer and mediation. But art and pastry are clear evidence that their inner lives were richly creative and inspired.