According to legend, a sister at the cloistered convent of Santa Rosa in Conca dei Marini, on Italy’s Amalfi Coast, accidentally invented one of the country’s most iconic pastries some 400 years ago. She mixed together semolina flour and ricotta cheese. Some accounts say she was trying to mold it into the shape of a monk’s hood, fallen against his back. Others say her intention was to make biancomangiare (a Sicilian almond pudding), but in a fit of inspiration, she spread the sweet filling between lard-covered, sugar-coated dough. However the story goes, it ends with the birth of the layered, sweet ricotta–filled pastry known as sfogliatella.
Santa Rosa’s most influential semolina-slinging nun allegedly passed the recipe to a relative from behind the convent walls. A century after her revelation, a pastry chef from Naples acquired the recipe and began offering the pastries in his shop. Sfogliatelle quickly became fashionable in neighboring bakeries. Pastry chefs simply inverted the direction of the dough folds to resemble a then-trendy seashell, as monks’ hoods were apparently not trendy.
But sfogliatella means neither “monk’s hood” nor “seashell.” Rather, it’s named after “layers” or “leaves,” a reference to its layers of dough. The pastry features a sweet ricotta filling, scented with citrus peel and cinnamon, housed inside either frolla (“smooth”) or riccia (“curly”) dough. Sfogliatella frolla is dome-shaped, with a surface reminiscent of a smooth, buttery pie crust. Sfogliatella riccia, however, is a bit more complex. Bakers slice the phyllo-like dough into thin rounds, form them into a cone, and stuff them with the sweet fillings. During baking, the layers separate to form sfogliatella riccia’s signature clamshell of delicate, crisp ridges. When topped with pastry cream and preserved cherries, this version is referred to as a “Santa Rosa.”
It may sound decadent, but fresh sfogliatelle are a common sight on most mornings in Italy. Just pair it with a cappuccino, and by Neapolitan standards, you’ve made breakfast.
Need to Know
Italian-American bakers make a larger version of this sweet called a Lobster Tail (Coda d’Aragosta), which uses diplomat cream (pastry cream lightened with whipped cream) in place of sweet cheese. To puff up the outer shell, bakers fill the uncooked ricci shell with choux pastry dough. Upon baking, the dough puffs into a hollow ball, creating more space for the airy, voluminous filling.
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Where to Try It
This bakery turns out fresh pastries just a block from Naples' Central station.
Casa del Pane is an italian bakery which sells sfogliatella alongside a number of breakfast and lunch options.