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Minni di sant’agata – St Agatha’s breasts

07/02/2011

Some sources say that a Sicilian nun was inspired by the hills around her when she created this bun recipe…. but they certainly bring something other than the landscape to mind, and with a common name of minni di sant’agata or minni di virgini, meaning “St Agatha’s breasts” or “virgin’s breasts”, that seems unlikely.

The more interesting (and gruesome) story behind these sweets is that they are inspired by St Agatha, a Catholic martyr who died in 251. St. Agatha, like other female saints, had her breasts torn from her body before she was burned to death. She is the patron of several villages in Spain, as well as the patron saint of martyrs, wet nurses, fire, earthquakes, and women with breast cancer. She is often depicted carrying her breasts on a platter before her, and it’s easy to see her as the inspiration behind these little cakes, served on St Agatha’s feast day, 5th February.

Similar cakes, minni di virgini, are made the rest of the year.  The recipe seems to originate from cloistered convents, where the nuns also made cakes such as fedde di cancelliere or  Chancellor’s buttocks.  These recipes seem to have less to do with ritual and memorial, and more to do with a bit of fun.  Trying to find out a bit more about these cakes, and curious what other naughty cousins I might discover, I found a link to this book, which looks like a very interesting read:

The Women in God’s Kitchen

And then there is this webpage, which intriguingly lists several other erotic-inspired cakes of Sicily, but I think they’ve gotten the spelling or the stories wrong, because very few of the names brought up recipes or verification when researched.  Still, I think there might be a fun and promising line in making such unusual cakes?

I have never tried one of these little cakes, but besides being morbidly delightful, or just titillating, they also sound delicious – delicate little cakes topped with sweet ricotta, chocolate and marzipan and a maraschino cherry.  Having sought out reviews and recipes, it sounds as though the few American bakeries that do make them don’t do a very nice job of it, as is often the case with commercial bakeries, using cheap ingredients and turning out a greasy over-sweet result.  And some insist on covering the poor things in sprinkles, which ruins the brilliantly rude context and also seems a poor tribute to St Agatha.  But all that just makes for a perfect challenge for the home baker – to take a maligned recipe and show it justice.  And, as St Agatha’s feast day was just last week, I think it’s a good time to give them a go.

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