“Seize the moment. Remember all those women on the Titanic who waved off the dessert cart.”
– Erma Bombeck
In Sicily, you feel the romance, passion and laid back pace of Southern Italy along with hints of influence from neighboring Greece, Africa and the Middle East. Apart from the majestic temples, glowing blue grottos and bustling outdoor markets scattered across the island, Sicily is known for its delicious and simple food. And if you are a dessert lover, this Italian island is a must-visit destination. Wander the narrow streets of a town like quaint and charming Taormina and you’re bound to discover countless pastry, sweets and gelato shops that offer every kind of confection you could ever imagine…and some you couldn’t.
While most people think of the cannoli when they think of Sicilian desserts, the locals seem to gravitate towards another treat: marzipan. In Italy, marzipan, or almond paste, is considered to be one of the most representative sweets of Sicily. Traditionally, native pastry chefs prepare this delicacy by crushing fresh, whole almonds (or even pistachios) into a fine powder before mixing it with honey, sugar, water and lemon that is then cooked to create a smooth, pure paste known as pasta reale. This grinding process is said to help the almonds release their natural oils, enhancing the flavor of the paste. Once ready, Sicilian marzipan is then molded into spectacular, decorative, fruit shaped desserts that are displayed throughout pastry shops in towns like Taormina. Also known as frutta di Martorana, these life-like fruits appear totally real, but are made of marzipan.
According to tradition, Sicilian marzipan originated in Palermo at the Convent of the Martorana. It is said that nuns created dozens of marzipan fruits and painted them to appear like real fruit to trick the Archbishop. The nuns decided to hang their decorative confections from the trees in the garden during his Easter visit to the convent, and the Archbishop believed that the trees had experienced an unusually productive fruit-bearing season.
Although eating straight marzipan may sound like a recipe for cavities and a serious sugar crash, this confection is surprisingly delicious when made with the finest ingredients. In Sicily, you simply cannot go wrong sampling this native delicacy, found in everything from icy granitas to freshly-baked cookies. My personal favorite way to enjoy marzipan is in the previously mentioned cookie form, available at the delightful Laboratorio Pasticceria Roberto on Via Calapitrulli in Taormina. Enter the tiny sweets shop behind the city center and revel at the powder sugar dusted cookies, cannoli and candies piled high behind the glass cases. Come early in the morning and you can watch the pastry chef at work, preparing and molding dough to make everything from crunchy biscotti to fruit filled strudel. While most people gravitate towards Roberto’s heavenly ricotta-filled cannoli, the impeccably simple Paste di Mandorla Naturale is the ultimate prize. Chewy yet crumbly, nutty yet subtle and sweet, dreams are made out of this cookie.
Tempted but not booking a flight to Italy anytime soon? Here is a recipe for Sicilian almond cookies that I’ve made countless times. It is sure to satisfy whenever a sugar craving comes calling.
Chewy Sicilian Almond Paste Cookies
Yield: Approximately 3 dozen cookies adapted from King Arthur Flour
20 ounces of Italian almond paste (Tip: Splurge for an authentic brand or a high quality product like Scott’s Cakes, also available on Amazon).
1 ¾ cups of granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 large egg whites, lightly beaten and left at room temperature for 1 hour
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 teaspoon Fiori di Sicilia (Optional but highly recommended. Lemon or orange extract works well too if you have that on hand).
Confectioner’s sugar, for dusting
- Preheat the oven to 325°F. Line baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats.
- In a large mixing bowl, combine almond paste, sugar and salt. Using a standing mixer (with the paddle attachment) or a hand mixer, begin to beat ingredients on medium speed until thoroughly combined.
- Reduce mixer speed to low and slowly add in the room temperature egg whites, then beat until fully incorporated.
- Mix in the almond extract and Fiori di Sicilia.
- Scoop out dough with a heaping tablespoon and place on the prepared baking sheets. Dust the cookies with confectioner’s sugar, then use your index and middle finger to lightly push the cookie dough down, leaving a small indent at the top. Bake cookies for 22-25 minutes, or until set. (Tip: The cookies should be just slightly golden but barely). Let cookies cool for 2 minutes on the baking sheet and then serve.
- For best storage, once cookies are cooled, store in an airtight container to ensure chewy freshness!
Enjoy these treats with coffee, tea or solo. Until next time, sweet dreams from Sicily!