Vastedduzzi – Edible works of art
Stories & Poetry
Vastedduzzi – Edible works of art
April 15, 2015 at 11:58 am 0

Making vastedduzzi is not for the faint-hearted. It requires strength, endurance, attention to detail and most importantly, a giant heart filled with an abundance of love.

tileIt is a gastronomic art form that can easily intimidate any aspiring pastry cook. Filled with mandarin infused almond paste, each biscuit is uniquely shaped and exquisitely decorated by pinching, snipping and pricking the exterior pastry creating spectacular results as delicate and artistic as an embroidered piece of silk. Looking at them, one might even hesitate to break open the delicate pastry shell and dare sample the sticky sweet interior. They really do look too good to eat but fortunately also, too good to resist.

Vastedduzzi hold a special place in my heart. Ever since I could remember, my Nonna Maria Scafidi miraculously conjured these biscuits each Christmas. I say miraculously because they always turned up in a box that she had posted from Sydney to our home in Horsham, Victoria. My mother would carefully open the box and remove the tissue paper packed to protect the fragile biscuits. One by one, she removed the first letter of each of our names and placed them reverently on a plate before us. My mother told us that this was the tradition of Christmas gift giving as was practiced on the island she came from, Salina. ‘In those days,’ she said, ‘there wasn’t money for presents so mothers made a beautifully decorated biscuit for each of their children.’ Then, out came other marvelous shapes – flowers, hearts, crescents, flourishes, birds and even fish. They were so wonderful that it seemed logical that they had been made by magic. It was only years later when I witnessed the incredible skill that I understood the dedication required. But now that my Nonna had passed away, how was I ever going to learn the fine art of making vastedduzzi?

Fortunately, I found the perfect substitute maestra di dolci – master of all things sweet, delicious and remarkable ­– in the humble town of Lingua, Salina. Born in 1959 to her parents Adelina Scafidi from Quattropani and Vittorio Benenati from Lingua, Rosalba Benenati had all the prerequisites ­– she has a reputation for preparing sweets and pastries that precedes her, strong and solid arms for kneading, incredible patience and surprisingly delicate fingers and most critically, an enormous love for her family and community. Upon meeting Rosabla, I warmed to her immediately. So generous in spirit and passionate about the recipes she has perfected over the years. Childless herself, it was Rosalba’s favourite niece that introduced us. It seems that Rosalba holds high hopes for Marzia’s culinary future made evident by the beautiful scrapbook of recipes she has created for her niece to record and carry on the mastery of the family’s traditional dolci. It was my dream to make some vastedduzzi under her expert tuition and like any good fairy godmother, Rosalba gladly granted my wish.

Marzia and I arrived early the next morning, ready for action. Rosalba had spent the day before preparing the almonds by blanching and peeling them before leaving them out to dry overnight. She had also soaked the mandarin peel in a large bowl of water to release their fragrant oils. Earlier that morning, Rosalba ground the almonds to a flour, added the sugar, cinnamon and mixed in enough mandarin water to create a paste that was homogenous and workable, not unlike a marzipan. When we entered her kitchen, the table was well prepared. The artist’s utensils were splayed out before us – the pizzacarolo (a purposely made serrated edged tweezer), serrated pastry cutters of various sizes, a small pair of scissors and a few embroidery needles. The dough that Rosalba had already worked until it was smooth and elastic, rested patiently under a towel placed next to the pasta machine. This, we were told, would be Marzia’s job – to roll out paper-thin sheets of pastry at a rate we could work with. Sleeves rolled up, hands washed, the toil of love began.




To start with, I thought it best to watch the master at work before attempting my own. Rosalba took a sheet of pastry and placed it on the board in front of her. Next, she took a walnut sized piece of almond paste and rolled it in her hands and formed a heart shape, laying it on the pastry sheet. With a finger dipped in the remaining mandarin water, she traced the shape to slightly moisten the pastry. This, I was told, was to ensure that the top sheet of pastry stuck to the bottom as it is important to seal the filling within the pastry. Then, Rosalba skillfully laid another sheet of pastry over the top, gently pressing out any air pockets. Using a serrated pastry cutter, Rosalba cut out the shape leaving a border of pastry of around 1 cm and removed the excess pastry from her workspace. Now the real artistry began and I moved in to pay full attention. Not unlike an artist with her pencil, Rosalba swiftly pinched, pierced and snipped the form producing an awe-inspiring work of art. She made it look so easy, as any master does.




The time came to attempt my own. Under Rosalba’s watchful eye, I followed her example, be it at a much slower pace. An illustrator myself, it seemed I had the necessary skill and produced my first vastedduzzi to a standard that at least satisfied Rosalba. The morning progressed slowly but joyfully. In all, we had 60 biscuits to create (Rosalba had halved her quantities for my demonstration). Amidst, the chatter and family stories, I thought of my Nonna Maria. Was she looking down on me, brimming with pride? I hoped so. Rosalba had told me that these biscuits were traditionally made by groups of women during the week before Christmas and for the feast of St Joseph. Often, the women were related and it was a time that cemented the bonds of family and community. Sadly, not so many of the younger generation are interested enough to devote an entire day to the painstaking process of making vastedduzzi and Rosalba fears that some of these traditions might actual cease one day. But not if she can help it, she tells me and darts a look towards Marzia who sweats a smile in return. It seemed that Marzia realized that she has very high hopes to live up to!




I’d like to extend a very warm thank you to Marzia and Rosalba for providing me with one of the most extraordinary and enjoyable days on Salina.

To get Rosalba’s recipe for making vastedduzzi, click on the button below. Good luck!




Dolce, Recipes
Recipe: Vastedduzzi
April 15, 2015 at 11:57 am 0
homeslider33 This recipe was kindly provided by la maestra di dolci a Lingua, Rosalba Benenati. This quantity makes approx. 120 biscuits. INGREDIENTS For the pastry 1 kg flour 4 egg yolks Malvasia or sweet sherry 250 g lard For the filling 1 kg whole almonds 900 g sugar 3 teaspoons of freshly ground cinnamon water infused with mandarin peel METHOD Begin with preparing the almonds and mandarin water the day before you intend to make the vastedduzzi. For the almonds: blanch the almonds, peel and leave to dry overnight. For the mandarin water: soak the peel of 10 mandarins in 1 litre of water overnight. The next day, grind the almonds until it become like flour. Then, mix in the sugar and the cinnamon, adding little by little enough mandarin water to achieve a moldable paste and set aside. To prepare the pastry, mix flour, eggs, lard and sugar adding little by little, enough Malvasia or sweet sherry to bind the dough. Knead until the dough becomes smooth and elastic. Using a pasta machine, roll out a sheet of pastry until it is paper thin and lay on a working surface. (Only roll out enough dough to work with as if left to dry, the pastry will crack when you try to mold it.) Take a small amount of almond paste and work into a form such as a heart, crescent, flower etc. and place on the sheet of pastry. Trace edges with a little remaining mandarin water and cover with another sheet of pastry. Take care to lightly press out any air pockets. Leaving a border of about 1 cm around the shaped filling cut away excess pastry using a serrated pastry cutter. Decorate the biscuits by pinching – using a pizzicarolo (or a pair of sterile tweezers), snipping – using a small scissors, and pricking – using a sewing needle. Once you have filled a tray, bake at 110˚C (230˚F) for 20 minutes or until edges brown.
Dolce, Recipes
Recipe: Sfinci d’ovo
February 6, 2015 at 12:50 pm 4
homeslider INGREDIENTS
  • 21/2 cups plain flour
  • 21/2 cups water
  • a pinch of salt
  • 7–8 large eggs
  • a light vegetable oil for frying
  • 1 cup of granulated sugar
  • 2 teaspoons of ground cinnamon
  METHOD Place water, salt and sugar in a saucepan (large enough to hold all of the ingredients) and bring almost to the boil. Add the flour all at once. Beat the mixture immediately with a wooden spoon and work quickly. When the dough starts to come together, switch off the heat. Stir until the dough forms a ball and no longer stick to the sides of pan. If you prefer, at this point you can move the dough into a mix master. Allow the dough to cool for about 10–15 minutes, but stir it often or beat on low to allow the steam to escape. While the dough is cooling, mix together sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl and set aside. Add eggs one at a time, beating each egg completely into the dough before adding the next. Add enough eggs so that the batter becomes pliable enough to fall off a spoon but not be runny. Heat some oil to frying temperature – there should be sufficient oil to nearly cover the level tablespoonfuls of dough, which will be dropped into it. Fry only a few at the time or the sfinci will broil rather than fry. Perfect sfinci will turn on their own accord, however if you need to, turn once or twice until they are golden brown and have swelled in size. Remove and drain on paper before rolling the sfinci in the sugar and cinnamon mix. Note: If you are unsure of the required consistency, test a spoonful of batter by placing it in the hot oil to see if it turns. Err on the side of a thicker batter as you can always beat another egg in after you’ve tested it.
Stories & Poetry
An affair with the Aeolian Islands of Sicily
February 5, 2015 at 10:38 am 1

"Happy the children that grow up in love with an island. There they learn certain important characteristics for their future lives: fantasia, solitude, freedom, and even a certain amount of disrespect towards the mainland… and they learn and scan the horizon, to sail and leave (... to come back one day)."

Inselsommer by Eric Orsenna

The fine art of making Aeolian sfinci d’ovo
Stories & Poetry
The fine art of making Aeolian sfinci d’ovo
February 4, 2015 at 9:03 am 4

Mention the words sfinci d’ovo to any Aeolian and you’ll see the glint of adoration sparkle in their eyes immediately. So beloved are these deep-fried spongy puffs dusted with granulated sugar and cinnamon, they have acquired cult status amongst the children of Aeolian migrants living around the globe.

tileIt’s true that i sfinci are revered by all that grew up at their Nonna’s heels watching them miraculously turn by themselves as the batter puffed into a golden ball as they fried happily in a sea of vegetable or olive oil. To a child, anything rolled in sweet, crunchy sugar is ridiculously enticing but add a delicately squishy interior with an exterior shell that collapses in your mouth and you’ll have died and gone to heaven. When I organized the Eoliano Heritage Study Program that brought Australian participants of Aeolian descent to the Aeolian Islands for a two week course of cultural immersion, it was the cooking demonstration of sfinci d’ovo that was most described as the highlight. Indeed, even for myself who was one of those children strapped to her Nonna’s side, the thought of attempting such a legendary treat left me nervous and doubtful. Dare I ever risk making a mess of such a sanctified family memory?

Many times I ran my fingers over the short list of ingredients I’d handwritten into the exercise book where I compiled some of the recipes I managed to extract from my Nonna Maria before she passed away. My mother had also made them but often with unsatisfactory results. Unlike myself, my mother was not privileged to spend as much time with her mother absorbing her culinary knowledge as I was. When Nonna Maria was in the kitchen behind their fruit shop in Mattraville, my mother was needed to serve fruit and vegetables to their customers. Consequently, my mother never really understood the consistency required, adding either too many eggs or not enough to ensure the perfect result. After a few mishaps and the look on her children’s disappointed faces, Mum left them to Nonna until one day, they disappeared into thin air, along with Nonna herself. When we loose someone loved so dearly, we grieve so many aspects of that person and Nonna’s sfinci d’ovo were just one of them. So when Zia Erminia flew into town recently from Palermo and asked me whether I made sfinci d’ovo for my children, I blushed and said, “I want to but I’m too scared to try in case they are a disaster.” “Nah,” she laughed in her broken English, “It’s a easy. I make a them all a de time for a mi kids… they love em! Come ona, we’ll make em together. I show a you the way an olda ladee from Lingua (Salina) taughta me ow to do it.”

A little bit of history

That evening as I excitedly awaited the next day’s agenda and my pending benediction for making sfinci d’ovo for the first time, I got to thinking about these randomly shaped sponges of dough. Who invented them? And what is their story? In Sicily, they make sfinci from a very similar dough and process and often fill them with ricotta cream sweetened with candied fruit to celebrate the feast day of Saint Joseph who is known locally as San Giuseppe. While I was unable to find any written information specifically on the history of sfinci d’ovo, I decided that investigating the sfinci di San Giuseppe was the perfect place to start. After all, when the Turkish pirate Barbarossa ransacked Lipari Island in 15441 and killed or enslaved almost the entire population the Aeolian Islands were resettled largely by Sicilians. The reigning emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Charles V had ordered the bishop of Lipari to increase his flock of the remaining Liparoti who had escaped to Messina, by offering land to Southern Italian and Spanish families. Needless to say, the Sicilians turned up with their zappa (hoe) on their backs and their own cultural traditions in their pockets!

So what do sfinci d’ovo and sfinci di San Giuseppe have in common? Apart from the ingredients of which are practically the same (except for the addition of butter to the sfinci di San Giuseppe) and the same method of cooking the dough prior to adding whole eggs as well as frying them in oil and tossing them in cinnamon sugar, both sfinci share just that – the word sfinci. As obvious as this may seem, it is the origins of this word that tells us much about the entwined history of the Sicilian and Aeolian peoples that ultimately translates into their greatest form of cultural expression – their food.

Which came first? The Arabs, Romans or the Greeks

There exist two theories on the origins of the word sfinci, also spelt spingi or sfingi, both originating from Sicily’s distant past of foreign domination. Historian, Michele Amari wrote in his Storia dei Musulemani in Sicilia2, ‘Arabs remained in name and in fact in Sicily. Fried pastries in Sicily like those from Barbary (Maghreb) are called sfinci … from the Arab word isfang or sfang’. The isfang of Arab origin, a kind of fried pancake pastry drizzled in honey, were introduced during the tenth century CE after the Saracens and Berbers conquered western Sicily3. However, another respected authority on the history of Sicilian cuisine, Pino Correnti, ascribes sfinci to the pagan era during which time, were consumed to celebrate the winter solstice4. Correnti claims the word sfinci is derivative from the Greek word for sponge, sponghìa and the Latin spongia.

Celebrating San Giuseppe with sfinci

One might consider the Aeolian sfinci d’ovo to be the poorer cousin to the Sicilian sfinci di San Giuseppe. Even Susan Lord and Danilo Baroncini refer to sfinci d’ovo as sfinci di San Giuseppe in their collection of anecdotal recipes from the Aeolian Islands titled Pani Caliatu5. Celebrated on the 19th of March, the Festa di San Giuseppe on the island of Salina features la tavuliata (a festive table) dedicated to the saint. The long table adorned with a white table cloth and flowers is prepared outdoors, laden with typical Aeolian foods prepared by locals including generous platters piled high with sfinci d’ovo that are presented as an offering to the holy family and as tradition has it, to the poor. San Giuseppe has particular significance to the town of Malfa. Legend tells that in 1835, a boat called U Mulinciani was caught in a menacing storm as it approached Naples where it was to deliver its load of Malvasia wine and local produce. Fearing for their lives as the violent sea thrashed them about, the pious fishermen implored San Giuseppe for their salvation, promising to feed the poor in gratitude. There is a lot more to this story but I’d like to save that for another time. The point is that San Giuseppe was as important to the Aeolians as he was to the Sicilians.

So, if sfinci d’ovo are in fact, derived from the traditional fritters of the sfinci di San Giuseppe, why the variation in ingredients? I have asked many Aeolians for their version of sfinci d’ovo and the basic ingredients are incredibly simple: one part flour, one part water, a pinch of salt and as many eggs as required. Some add a small amount of sugar, perhaps a tablespoon but this is basically it. Interestingly, the recipe given in Pani Caliatu and supplied by Eugenia Renda from Stromboli includes 2 tablespoons of butter but I am told emphatically by some of my Aeolian migrant friends that this is not traditional. Whatever the case, the mystery of the missing butter ingredient can be easily explained. Butter was not produced on the islands nor did the islanders of yesteryear have regular access to Sicily to purchase it. Sure they produced cheese but this was made from goat or sheep’s milk. This would explain the ‘or olive oil’ in Eugenia’s recipe. The Aeolians produced their own high-grade olive oil and traditional Aeolian biscuits use olive oil as the fat component, not butter or lard as used on Sicily.

When Zia Erminia arrived the next morning, she swung into full action. Wait! I’ve got to set my video camera up. Aspetta, Zia! I was determined not to miss a second of this inaugural moment but unfortunately, there was no taming the lion once she’s escaped the clutches of feeling useless in somebody else’s house. Consequently, if you’d like to watch the video published with this article, you’ll notice that my head is often cut of the video frame – I simply couldn’t get Zia to wait for me to check anything! Never mind, after all, it’s all about sharing the recipe with all of you enthusiasts. So without further ado, click here for my idiot-proof step-by-step instructions. Enjoy!


(Sorry, I'm still working on the video footage – stay tuned)



  1. Racheli, Gin. Eolie di Vento e di Fuoco, Milano, U. Mursia editore S.p.A. (1977), p. 186.
  2. Amari, Michele,Storia dei musulmani di sicilia, Catania: Dafni, (1986), (3) pt. 5, 892 n. 2.
  3. Previté-Orton, William Carles. A Short History of Medieval Europe: Volumes I and II, Cambridge Unviersity Press (1971), vol. 1, pg. 370.
  4. Correnti, Pino. Il libro d'oro della cucina e dei vini di Sicilia, Mursia; Nuova ed. riv. e ampliata edition (1992).
  5. Lord, Susan and Baroncini, Danilo. Pani Caliatu, Centro Studi e Ricerche di Storia e Problemi Eoliani (2001), p. 165.



Miracolo! Saved by San Giuseppe!
The tradition of the quadara di San Giuseppe of Malfa, Salina


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