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One of the most notable things about Sicily is the great tradition of pastry making. Special and local ingredients are used to create sweet indulgences unique to Sicily. Many of the creations originated in Palermo, so what better place to taste them. Upon entering a shop the array of pastries may seem never ending making it difficult to choose, so I have selected the top 5 Sicilian pastries to try in Palermo, Sicily.
For me the most tempting of all, is the famous Sicilian pastry, cannoli. It is a popular long tubular shaped crust, filled with a ricotta cream sweetened with sugar and studded with candied fruit. The origin of cannoli dates back to Sicily, specifically Palermo, where it was prepared during Carnevale season, and according to lore, as a symbol of fertility. The best cannoli are made with a very thin crust and fried to achieve the perfect crispiness. Traditionally, cannoli are made with fresh ricotta cheese, usually sheep’s milk. The small candied fruits, particularly lemon, orange, or citron and cherry, are sometimes mixed into the cheese mixture. Chocolate chips and Bronte pistachios from Mount Etna are popular as well. Keep your eye out for cannoli that are piped to order, as this ensures the crispiest shell.
Pictured below is an entire glass case dedicated to the artistically beautiful frutta martorana, which almost looks too good to eat. Frutta martorana are traditional marzipan sweets in the form of fruits and vegetables made with almond flour and vanilla, from the provinces of Palermo and Messina. Nuns were the first to prepare this dessert when they decorated empty fruit trees with marzipan fruit in an effort to impress an archbishop visiting on November 1, the Day of the Dead, or All Souls Day. Though you find these marzipan sweets year round, it’s not surprising that Frutta Martorana is a common treat given to children on All Souls’ Day. In honour of all the saints, known and unknown, the dead come back among the living leaving a traditional basket of fruit with frutta martorana as a sign of their passing. Prepare yourself, as frutta martorana is not lacking in the sweet department.
Sfincia of San Giuseppe
This is a fried sweet originally produced in Palermo and is traditionally eaten on March 19, during the feast of St. Joseph , regarded throughout the island the first holiday of the new spring season, in addition to Father’s Day. The sfincia name derives from Latin and Arabic meaning “sponge”. This simple and tasty pancake has been transformed into a delicious sweet thanks to the nuns of the monastery of the Stigmata, located in Palermo. At first, the recipe was simple but the confectioners in Palermo made this cake even more tasty enriching it with typical Sicilian ingredients such as ricotta cream, bits of pistachio, cherries and candied peeled orange. Traditionally sfincia, the size of a fist, is fried in fat for 10-15 minutes, doubling the dough’s initial volume, becoming soft and honeycomb-like inside.
Biscotti di mandorle
These are “a must” of the Sicilian culinary tradition. In Sicily, almonds are prominently featured in baked goods and desserts because some of the best in Italy come from Avola. Biscotti di mandorle are cookies prepared with an almond paste, called “pasta reale” which translates to royal paste. The basic recipe consists of almond paste, ground almonds, and fine sugar bound with egg but don’t be surprised if you find a hint of lemon or orange zest and even tiny bits of finely chopped candied fruit. The cookies are piped out and baked until slightly crisp and cracked on the outside but still soft and sticky in the center. Pair them with a good tea, coffee or a glass or Marsala, the typical Sicilian sweet wine.
Also known as Cassata siciliana is another traditional sweet from Palermo. The Arabs introduced the sugar cane, lemon, lime, oranges, mandarin, and almonds, the basic ingredients of the cassata in addition to the prehistoric Sicilian cheese produced from sheep. The Arabic word qas’ah, from which cassata is generally believed to derive, refers to the bowl that is used to shape the cake. Now, cassata consists of round sponge cake moistened with fruit juices or liqueur and layered with ricotta cheese, candied peel, and a chocolate or vanilla filling similar to cannoli cream. It is covered with a shell of marzipan, pink and green pastel colored pasta reale ‘royal’ icing, and decorative designs. The cassata is topped with candied fruit depicting cherries and slices of citrus fruit characteristic of Sicily. “Cassata” can also refer to a flavor of ice-cream inspired by the cake, giving you another way to taste this traditional sweet.
While I suggest taking full advantage of every pastry shop in Palermo, you must pay a special visit to Pasticceria Cappello on Via Colonna Rotta. The selection of authentic Sicilian pastries is impeccable. The walk to the pastry shop is an experience in itself as you pass through the old gateway into the “new Palermo”. This visit is the perfect way to see the distinct divide between the two sides of town while treating yourself to traditional Sicilian pastries.