Sicily is not only renowned for its stunning landscapes and rich history but also for its special culinary treasures. Among these, the Sicilian sweets stand out as a true delight for both the taste buds and the soul. In this blog post, we embark on a flavorful journey to explore the world of Sicilian desserts.
Join us as we explore all the shades of sweetness that define Sicilian traditions and bring joy to every celebration!
The story of cannolo, a sweet mistery
The cannolo is a Sicilian sweet made from a crunchy wafer fried in fat – called “scorza” (peel) – filled with cream of sheep ricotta cheese with a sprinkling of chocolate or pistachio and candied fruit at both ends.
But what are the origins of this sweet? In an ancient land dominated by thousands of cultures like Sicily it is very difficult to reconstruct the historical origins of its heritage and everything is lost in fascinating mysteries. There are many legends that tell the origins of the cannolo and we decided to list them below so that you can decide which one to believe!
The sicilian cannolo between Islam and Christianity
While traces of a rustic cannolo date back to Roman times, it is said that the modern cannolo was born in Caltanissetta during the Arab domination. Caltanissetta, a translation of the original name “Kalt El Nissa“, meaning “Castle of Women”, was the place where Saracen Emirs built their harems. A legend tells that the Emir’s wives, to pass their time, dedicated themselves to preparing extravagant dishes. They reportedly modified an existing Arab dessert made from ricotta, almonds and honey, reworking it and blending it with the Roman recipe, giving rise to a specialty that would later become universally known.
Subsequently, with the end of Arab rule in Sicily, the harems disappeared. However, some of these women, having remained in Sicily and converted to the Christian faith, withdrew into monasteries, bringing with them the recipes they had developed for the emirs’ courts. In fact, today, you can taste one of the best Palermo’s cannoli at St. Catherine Monastery, where the sweet is still prepared by following the nuns’ recipe.
Cannolo was initially prepared during the Carnival months, but today – especially in Sicily – you can find cannoli throughout the year. Despite this, let us give you a piece of advice: no Sicilian would eat cannoli during summer, as the quality of ricotta is not as good as in colder seasons.
Sicilian cassata: a sweet masterpiece
The queen of the island’s pastry, cassata is a traditional Sicilian sweet made from sweet ricotta, sponge cake, and marzipan, decorated with icing and colorful candied fruit. Known and appreciated internationally, it represents the various dominations that succeeded in Sicily, as each of them contributed to make cassata the dessert we enjoy today.
This typical dessert originated during the Arab domination as a form of shortcrust pastry filled with sweetened ricotta and baked in the oven; the name itself derives from the Arabic “qas at“, which means a “large and round basin”, indicating the typical mold in which cassata was prepared. If the cake finds its origins with the Arabs, during the Norman era, in the Martorana Monastery, the nuns added the typical marzipan strips to the cake. The substitution of shortcrust pastry with sponge cake is credited to Spanish domination; it was the time when the transition from a baked cassata to a chilled one took place. During the Baroque period, candied fruits were introduced by a pastry chef from Palermo to embellish the dessert. As with all recipes of tradition, there are many local variations that stand out for their appearance and different layers.
Despite being considered an Easter dessert, today you can eat cassata all year round, as well as cannoli!
A sweet that inaugurates the holiday season: the Cuccìa of Santa Lucia
Legend says that in 1646 a serious famine hit Palermo, the people prayed to the Saint and, suddenly, a ship loaded with wheat arrived at the city port: the citizens, who were starving, boiled the grains of wheat and ate them with salt and oil. So the Cuccìa was born, a sweet made of boiled wheat with ricotta cream. As often happens in the Sicilian culinary tradition, several versions were born: salted, with milk, with cooked wine, with honey, with legumes or with ricotta.
On December 13th, since the day the miracle happened to today, Sicilians do not eat bread or pasta as a sign of devotion to the Saint, yet on average, almost two million arancine – which, together with Cuccìa represent the typical dishes of this recurrence – are consumed in Palermo alone. That’s why Santa Lucia’s day is also called arancina day.
Frutta martorana and the Day of the Dead
The Day of the Dead, or ‘Festa dei Morti‘ in Sicily, is a poignant and deeply rooted tradition celebrated in November, that dates back centuries. It is a day when Sicilians gather to honor and remember their deceased loved ones, offering prayers, visiting cemeteries, and sharing food with family and friends.
This unique tradition has its origins in a blend of Roman Catholic beliefs, ancient Roman customs, and local folklore. In the Catholic calendar, All Saints’ Day (November 1st) and All Souls’ Day (November 2nd) are dedicated to honoring the saints and remembering the souls of the departed.
Sicily, with its rich history of religious and cultural influences, added its own distinctive twist to these observances: on the Day of the Dead, Sicilian families prepare cuddureddi, special sweet bread shaped like bones, and frutta martorana, marzipan fruit in bright colors, to offer at the gravesites. This last sweet has its own origins in legend: it is said that in the Late Middle Ages, the nuns of the Martorana Monastery received the illustrious visit of the Archbishop. They were the first days of November and, in order to pick up a remedy to the lack of fruits that usually grew in the lush garden of the Monastery during other seasons, the nuns had the idea of preparing sweets to offer to their special guest. With these gifts, packaged in the form of fruit, they cheerfully decorated the trees of the famous garden. The result was so surprising that since then this fruit became the Monastery’s quintessential dessert and it took its name.
Torrone: a sweet symphony of ingredients
Sicilian torrone is a typical Christmas sweet that combines simple yet exquisite ingredients to create a harmonious blend of flavors and textures. The key components of this sweet are honey, almonds, pistachios, and a hint of citrus zest, typically from oranges or lemons.
The almonds used in Sicilian Torrone are often sourced from the region’s fertile soil and Mediterranean climate, which contributes to their exceptional flavor and quality. The combination of these premium ingredients results in a sweet, nutty, and slightly citrusy profile that truly captures the essence of Sicilian cuisine.
The history of torrone dates back to the Arab influence on the island during the Middle Ages, but over the centuries it evolved and absorbed various culinary influences, including Spanish and French. Each culture left its mark on the recipe, adding new elements and refining the technique.