Reporting from Erice, Italy — The glass case at Maria Grammatico's Pasticceria del Convento in the hilltop town of Erice displays treasures worthy of a Swiss bank.
Cannoli, filled with fresh ricotta, is just the best known variety. When you make a closer study, you discover a world of confections as beautiful to look at as they are sweet to eat: green cassata cakes made of almond, sugar, vanilla, buttermilk curd and candied fruit; perfectly formed marzipan prickly pears and tomatoes; lemon-flavored cuscinetti (small fried pastries); buccellati (hard, baked cookies) twisted around fig, cinnamon and clove comfit; an almond and egg white confection known as sospiri (pastry made from sponge cake); and the endearing almond-citron baby lambs that arrive on Good Friday for Erice's famous I Misteri celebration.
I sought out this particular pasticceria because I'd read "Bitter Almonds," part memoir, part cookbook, co-written by Grammatico and American-born writer Mary Taylor Simeti. It's set in the sad, lean years after World War II and tells the story of Grammatico's childhood in the Erice orphanage of San Carlo where she learned the art of Sicilian pastry making.
She was 11 when she entered the orphanage, run by cloistered nuns who supported the institution by selling their pastry creations through a small revolving portal. The little girls spent their days painting marzipan apricots and cherries, making lemon preserves, shelling almonds with a hammer and stone. The almonds, grown in the arid fields around Erice, were ground to a pulp and used in place of flour, giving the pastries their special flavor and consistency.