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