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Minni di Virgini, or St. Agatha’s Breasts

Written by Danielle Oteri

Editor’s Note: This post, originally written in 2011, references DeRobertis Pasticcieria in Manhattan’s East Village, which is now closed.

“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.

Minni di virgini - cassatini Siciliane - Italian breast-shaped pastries
Photo: Casey Barber

“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?”

Minni di virgini - cassatini Siciliane - Italian breast-shaped pastries
Photo: Casey Barber

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.

Minni di virgini - cassatini Siciliane - Italian breast-shaped pastries
Photo: Casey Barber

The counter girl could no longer contain herself and blurted out, “She said they look like breasts!”

“What?!”

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.

minni di virgini
Photo: Casey Barber

“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.

Minni di virgini - cassatini Siciliane - Italian breast-shaped pastries
Photo: Casey Barber

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.

Minni di virgini - cassatini Siciliane
Photo: Casey Barber

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.

minni di virgini

If you can’t find minni di virgini or cassatini Siciliane at your local Italian bakery, you can try making your own in honor of Sant’ Agata.

My version is adapted from that ancient reliquary of Italian recipes, The Talisman. The major difference is that I have eliminated marzipan, because 1) it makes the minni far too sweet and 2) there’s no way I’m making my own marzipan.

Minni di virgini

Minni di Virgini, AKA Cassatini Siciliane or St. Agatha's Breasts

Yield: 8 breasts
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 40 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour 10 minutes

Minni di virgini, or cassatini Siciliane, are Italian breast-shaped pastries with cherry nipples baked for the Feast of Saint Agatha on February 5.

Ingredients

Ricotta Filling

  • 1 pound ricotta cheese
  • 2 cups (400 grams) granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 tablespoon chopped dark chocolate or chocolate chips

Sponge Cake

  • 5 large eggs
  • 1 1/2 cups (150 grams) granulated sugar
  • 1 1/4 cups (150 grams) all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 teaspoons lemon zest

Topping

  • 8 maraschino cherries, sliced in half

Instructions

Make the ricotta filling:

  1. In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, whip the ricotta on medium-low speed until creamy. 
  2. With the mixer running, add the sugar and beat until dissolved, about 1 minute more.
  3. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the vanilla, then fold in the chocolate chips. 
  4. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

Make the sponge cake:

  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. 
  2. Grease and flour 2 9-inch square baking pans.
  3. Separate the egg yolks and whites.
  4. In a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip the egg whites on medium-high speed until stiff peaks form. Transfer to a clean bowl and set aside.
  5. Change to the paddle attachment and beat the egg yolks and sugar on medium-low speed for 2-3 minutes, until thickened and lemon-colored. 
  6. Reduce the mixer speed too low. Add the flour a little at a time, making sure each scoop is fully incorporated before adding more. 
  7. Stir in in the vanilla and lemon rind. 
  8. By hand, fold the egg whites into the cake batter. 
  9. 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. 
  10. Turn out on a wire rack to cool.

Assemble the cakes:

  1. 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. 
  2. Top each sponge cake disc with a generous dome of ricotta custard and one of the maraschino cherry halves.
Nutrition Information:
Yield: 8 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 248Total Fat: 10gSaturated Fat: 5gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 4gCholesterol: 134mgSodium: 102mgCarbohydrates: 27gFiber: 1gSugar: 8gProtein: 13g

The nutritional information above is computer-generated and only an estimate.

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22 Comments

  1. Love the story – and photo of the guys carrying the saints. But this doesn’t seem like my kind of dessert. Not enough chocolate! Your recipe sounds like a huge improvement over the bakery’s!

  2. This post exemplifies what I love so much about this blog: you take a food, provide some backstory, not always outrageous but sometimes, add a related recipe and tie the whole thing up with a dainty bow. Well done!

  3. woah, NSFW! ;) i love your posts on the foods of the italian saints–such a great way to relay a rich history. a rich and and delicious history…

  4. @Melanie, yes, Salieri is eating cappezoli di venere, Venus nipples which are roman chestnuts covered in brandied sugar. I love how throughout the movie, he continuosly steals sweets and and quickly stuffs them in his mouth. I actually watched Amadeus in prep for this post as I thought he may in fact be eating Agatha’s nipples.

  5. I so enjoyed reading your tale. Being a person with a big sweet tooth, your version sounds delish. Anything with ricotta cheese gets my vote.

  6. Fantastic story! I love hearing stories like this. I’ve never heard of Saint Agatha or the Sicilian celebration but it sounds amazing. I know De Robertis from when I lived in the East Village in the mid-80s. Nice to know it’s still around.

  7. Danielle,
    I would like to make these for my dinner, but I still have some questions about the “glaze-look” over them (?).

  8. Hi Casey ….

    The photo doesn’t jive w/your recipe. So, I take it they are both different.

    What is the green stuff on top of the ricotta cream? It looks really good! Ha. Just confused how it got inside the ::breast:: (bun) ….. or not.

    Cannot see any c-chips. The 10-X sugar drip is awesome. I love that stuff.

    Ohwell. Let’s just dream about having a bite of this ….. bun. There’s no way I would attempt to bake em. Ha. Nope.

    1. Marcee, the photo is of the storebought version, but as author Danielle noted, she created her own recipe that eliminated marzipan and added chocolate chips, among other things.

  9. Hi Danielle , did you take a pic of your Minni ? I’ll be attempting your recipe and would love to see your version of the cake.
    thanks for the recipe.
    DIllon

  10. Danielle,
    I’ve just read two books by (the character actor) Vincent Schiavelli. You probably won’t know his name, but you’ll know his face. Absolutely wonderful books. Neat, neat person and a gifted writer.

    His first book, a cookbook, recounts the recipes he learned from his Sicilian grandfather. His recipe is a bit different than yours. If you like Sicily you definitely should look into his books.

    In any event, here are the ingredients from his grandfather’s version (12 breasts):
    2-1/2 C milk, 1/2C sugar, 6T cornstarch, piece of lemon peel, 1/2 C chocolate chips, 8 green candied cherries (chopped fine), 2 C flour, 1 C almond meal, 1/3 C confectioner’s sugar, 3/4 C shortening, 2 eggs, 1 t cognac, 1T milk, 6 red candied cherries (cut in half).

    This was from his first book “Papa Andrea’s Sicilian Table: Recipes from a Sicilian Chef as remembered by his grandson”

  11. Thanks for this, Ed! I just googled him and yes, I absolutely know that face! His books look fantastic. Seems like he was a master of the memoir/cookbook long before it had its day. Ordering Bruculinu, America right now. :)

  12. My wife and I are 1st generation Canadian, each of our parents being Italian immigrants of over 55 years past. My parents are from Calabria and her’s are from Frosinone. We like to make fun of each other’s dialect. When I told her that the word for breasts was “minni”, she challenged me to prove it…well, I couldn’t find it in any official dictionary, so your story is my “evidence”…thanks!

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