The sweet aromas of Sicily

Sicily has had a Jewish presence for at least 1,500 years and possibly more than 2,000 years.

Chef Isaac Massias in Sicily. (photo credit: AYA MASSIAS)
Chef Isaac Massias in Sicily.
(photo credit: AYA MASSIAS)
Jews lived in many Sicilian cities such as Palermo, Messina, Catania and of course Syracuse, where, in 1999, the oldest known mikve in western Europe was discovered, dating back to the seventh century.
There is a legend that Jews arrived in Sicily as slaves in the 1st century after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE; however it is generally presumed the island’s Jewish population was founded prior to the destruction of the Second Temple.
Yaya Food and Travel’s annual 10-day tours of Sicily include visits to archeological and Jewish Heritage sites, as well as a trek up the Mount Etna volcano. Our next Sicilian tour will take place September 5 to 14. For those attending: Get ready to be spoiled by the varied, diverse and delicious cuisine and local wines we will find in Sicily.
Although Sicilian cuisine has much in common with Italian cooking, it also has Greek, Spanish, French and even Arab influences, due to the various cultures that have inhabited in the island over the past millennia.
Sweet aromas and rich, diverse flavors mix with spices and a profusion of simple, fresh and tasty ingredients from local vineyards, orange and lemon groves, almond trees and olive plantations can be found across the island.
Sicily is home to la cucina povera, the fresh and healthy poor man’s diet consisting of pasta dressed with extra-virgin olive oil, vegetables, tuna, swordfish, sardines, lightly grilled lamb, meats seasoned with herbs and lots of antipasti.
The most famous of all Sicilian appetizers is caponata, originally consumed with rustic bread as a meal in itself, although today it had become more of a side dish.
Two of this week’s recipes are classic Sicilian with strong Arab influence.
We will be cooking with cumin, cinnamon, prunes and almonds: Caponata and Gallina piccola ripiena (stuffed baby poussin). The caponata can (and should when possible) be enhanced with the addition of feta cheese, but also works well as a parve side dish.
The specialty Sicilian dessert I want to share with you is dairy and delicious: cannoli stuffed with mascarpone cream.
The writer, from a Spanish and Portuguese Sephardi family, is a London Savoy Hotel- trained chef and former owner of various high-end restaurants in Jerusalem and New York. He and his wife live on a farm in Andalusia and run Yaya Food and Travel, specializing in gourmet kosher Jewish heritage culinary tours in Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Sicily and Provence. Please note the correct address for their website ( Isaac Massias can be emailed directly at massiasisaac@
Gallina piccola ripiena (Stuffed baby poussin)
Serves 4
■ ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
■ 1 small onion, chopped
■ 2 garlic cloves, chopped
■ ½ stick celery, chopped
■ 6 mushrooms, chopped (any kind will do)
■ 2 cups soft bread chopped, (or bread crumbs)
■ 1 Tbsp. dry or fresh sage
■ 1 Tbsp. curry powder
■ 1 Tbsp. cumin
■ 10 crushed hazelnuts
■ 1 egg
■ ¼ cup raisins
■ Salt and pepper
In a medium-size pan put the olive oil and start sautéing the onion, celery and garlic. When brownish, add the mushrooms. When ready, add the bread, hazelnuts and raisins. Mix well until your mixture looks like breadcrumbs.
Add the sage, curry, cumin and mix. Then add the egg and bring all the mixture together like a paste, salt and pepper to taste.
Roasting the baby poussin:
■ 4 x 350 gr. poussin supreme
■ 3 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
■ 4 rosemary sprigs
■ 4 big garlic cloves, cut in half (with skin)
■ 4 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
Preheat the oven to 200°.
Rub each poussin with olive oil and Dijon mustard. Stuff the inside of the poussin with the stuffing and tie the poussin with a string. Tie the rosemary sprigs and garlic to the poussin. Add sea salt and black pepper to taste.
Roast in the oven for approx 20 minutes and bring out when skin is dark brown and crispy.
■ ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
■ 1 large onion sliced
■ 1 cup prunes (no pits)
■ ½ cup sliced roasted almonds
■ 1 Tbsp. cumin
■ 1 tsp. cinnamon
■ ¼ cup soya milk
■ ½ cup coconut milk or cream
■ ½ cup fresh cilantro chopped finely
Place medium-size pan on fire and start sautéing the onion. When brown, add the prunes and after 6 minutes add the almonds, cumin, cinnamon, soya and coconut milk. To serve the poussin, place them on an attractive shallow tray, pour the prune sauce all over the poussin and finish off by sprinkling them with fresh cilantro.
Sicilian Caponata
■ 1 cup extra virgin olive oil
■ 3 eggplants, peeled and diced
■ 1 large onion diced
■ 3 cloves garlic chopped finely
■ 2 small stalks celery
■ 1½ cups ripe crushed tomatoes
■ ½ cup dry red wine
■ 1 tsp. salt
■ Freshly ground pepper to taste
■ 1 dry pepperonchini pepper (you can use 2 if you prefer it spicier)
■ 15 small pitted black olives
■ Fresh basil leaves (Optional: 150 gr. feta cheese)
Start by heating oil in a medium size pan. When hot, start frying eggplants.
When browned and soft, bring out and place on paper towels to soak up excess oil. In the same pot start sautéing the onion, celery, garlic, and olives. Once ingredients are a nice brown color, add the tomatoes and red wine. Let it all cook together for 30 minutes; add salt and pepper to taste.
Caponata can be served hot or cold. Serve fresh basil leaves and a drizzle of fine extra-virgin olive oil.
Optional: Serve with chunks of feta cheese.
Cannoli stuffed with mascarpone cream
Dough :
■ 1 cup all-purpose flour
■ 1½ Tbsp. granulated sugar
■ ½ tsp. cocoa powder
■ ¼ tsp. ground cinnamon
■ ¼ tsp. salt
■ 1½ Tbsp. vegetable oil
■ ³⁄8 cup sweet marsala wine
■ 1 small egg white, lightly beaten
■ Confectioners’ sugar for dusting
■ 1 cup cream for whipping
■ 2 Tbsp. sugar
■ 1 x 250 gr. mascarpone cheese
■ 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
Instructions: Combine flour, granulated sugar, cocoa powder, cinnamon and salt in a bowl of an electric mixer. Add marsala wine and oil and beat at medium speed until dough comes together.
Using your hands, knead dough on a lightly floured work surface until smooth and pliable for about 15 minutes.
Wrap in plastic and place in refrigerator for 30 minutes.
Roll out dough into a sheet. With an 8-cm. round cutter, cut circles of dough. Pour enough oil into a medium- size pot. When oil is hot, wrap each round of dough around a roller, or, if you have a cannoli form, even better, and deep fry them until light brown and crispy. Put aside to cool.
Filling: Whip the cream and sugar. When it is stiff and holding, add the cinnamon and mix with mascarpone cheese until you have a smooth cream. Place cream into a pastry bag and start filling your cannoli. Before serving, sprinkle with icing sugar and ground cinnamon.