Minni di virgini are round pastries in the shape of a small breast, with an outer layer of pasta frolla (shortbread dough) and a cream filling flavored with chocolate and candied orange peel. The story behind these pastries is that they were inspired by Saint Agatha, who is now the patron saint of Catania. St. Agatha had her breasts cut off in martydom and is depicted forever carrying them on a plate. The pastries called 'virgin's breasts' were created in her honor by the sisters of the Monastero della Vergine in Palermo and later adapted by the Catalians who, in the interest of anatomical correctness, added the cherry on top. For reasons of modesty, minni di virgini were called cassatine by the nuns. At one time, minni di virgini were baked in monasteries, now they are only available in the pasticcerie or pastry shops.
Virgin's Breasts are eaten at the Feast of St. Agatha which takes place in Catania every year on February 5. Elsewhere in Sicily, you will frequently see miniature cassatas or cassatini sporting a cherry garnish. Those too may be called virgin's breasts. There are many varieties of fillings for these pastries. Some are filled with an eggless custard and a sweet squash preserve, others are filled with a ricotta cream flavored with orange or candied fruits, or marmalade, or a chocolate cream seasoned with cinnamon. Some also add an almond paste to the outer layer of pasta frolla.
Icing: 1 cup confectioners' sugar 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract 1 teaspoon lemon juice Milk (1-2 tablespoons) 16 maraschino or candied cherries
Directions: To make the Sweet Pastry Dough: With an electric mixer, cream together the butter and sugar. Add the egg and beat to blend. Add the lemon zest, vanilla, salt, and flour; beat to combine. Add some water, a tablespoon at a time, until a soft dough forms. Wrap and refrigerate for at least one hour before rolling out.
To make the Milk Pudding Filling: In a medium saucepan, combine the milk, sugar, cornstarch, and vanilla. Whisk until no lumps remain. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat, whisking constantly until thickened. Remove from the heat and transfer to a bowl. Place a piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the pudding to prevent it from developing a skin. Refrigerate until cold, 1-2 hours. When the pudding is cold, stir in the orange peel and chocolate chips.
To make the Icing: In a small bowl, whisk together the sugar, vanilla, and lemon juice to combine. Add the milk, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the icing is smooth but still fairly thick. Cut a small slice off the stem end of each cherry, so that it will sit well on the top of each pastry.
To assemble and bake the pastries: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
On a lightly floured surface, roll out the pastry dough to 1/4-inch thickness. Cut out 16 circles using a 2-inch cookie cutter and another 16 circles using a 3 or 4-inch cookie cutter. Place about 1 tablespoon of the chilled filling in the center of each of the smaller circles of dough. Moisten the edges of the dough with a little water and place one of the larger pieces of dough on top to enclose the filling. Press the edges together to seal. With the palm of your hand, form the top of the pastry into a mound shape to resemble a breast.
Place the pastries on an ungreased baking sheet and bake for 12-15 minutes, or until slightly golden. Transfer the pastries to a wire rack to cool.
When the pastries are cool, dip and swirl the top of each in the icing. Place the iced pastries on a wire rack placed over a baking sheet to catch the drips. While the icing is still wet, place a cherry on top of each pastry.