The eternal (and now stale) diatribe between arancino and arancina was not enough. Between Catania and Palermo opens – on the occasion of the feast of San Giuseppe, on March 19 – another gastronomic battle front and this time on the dessert level. Under Etna donuts or rice crispelle, in the capital the “sfinci” of San Giuseppe.
The two things they have in common are the cooking method – frying – a must in the preparation of many Sicilian specialties (sweet and savory), and the convent origins. For the rest they are the opposite of two greedy worlds to be explored.
Milk, flour and sugar are just some of the ingredients of the typical “sfincia” whose name means “sponge”. In fact, to make it, flour, eggs (even just the yolks), milk, sugar and yeast are mixed together. Then it is preferably fried in lard and filled with ricotta cream and chocolate drops (but each area of the island has its own particularities and secrets). On top cherries and candied orange peel. They could also be cooked in the oven but no authentic Palermitan would greet you anymore.
The origin of these soft “spongy” crepes dates back to the Arabs to whom a tradition of sweets fried in oil belongs, but it would have been the nuns of the Palermo convents, in particular those of the monastery of the Stigmata in Palermo who made the version we know today. Examples of “proto-sfinci”, so to speak, would also be present in the pages of the Bible and the Koran, ie cakes fried in oil seasoned with honey.
In Catania, the confectionery tradition on the table of San Giuseppe celebrates the “zeppole” or “rice crispelle”. At the base is a rice dough cooked in milk and flavored with orange peel and cinnamon. Small cylinders are formed and fried to be seasoned, at the end, with honey and dusted with icing sugar. It seems that the recipe for “crispelle” originated in the 16th century Benedictine Monastery of Catania. Other sources would attribute the copyright of the “zeppole” to the nuns, also Benedictine, of Catania.
A curiosity: it seems that the Benedictines cooked rice in almond milk because, according to tradition, almond milk has refreshing powers for the stomach and, with everything they ate, they needed it. It is no secret – and Federico De Roberto told us in “The Viceroys” – that the most frequent occupation of the monks was, in fact, the practice of Michelasso’s art «eating, drinking and going for a walk».