In Italy, it seems like there are countless regional specialties depending on what small village you happen to be passing through. Some are well known like the porchetta of the Roman countryside, but others are so specific to the tiny towns that you almost have to be there to discover them. Then there are a few that become notorious, like the meat and chocolate cookies from Modica in Sicily.
Yes, you read that correctly. These cookies have beef (usually veal) mixed into a sweet filling of chocolate. Called ‘mpanatigghi, the cookies are half-moons stuffed with the beef-chocolate mixture, enveloped by a soft dough that is dusted with powdered sugar.
It is really hard to imagine what a meat cookie is going to taste like because our brains (or, mine at least) immediately jump to the idea of savory and it is hard to reconcile this with the traditional idea of “cookie.” I definitely paused and took a deep breath before I bit into my first ‘mpanatigghi.
“Relax, signora,” the owner told me. “You won’t notice the beef.”
And it’s true. Even though my head was stuck on the idea of meat cookies, the sweetness is the predominant sensation. Modica is famous for its chocolate, so naturally that is an ingredient in the filling. There is also almond meal and spices, along with the veal. They could leave the meat out and you would be none the wiser.
So why put meat in cookies at all?
For protein, of course.
The cookies are actually quite enjoyable so I had to pick some up to bring home from Pasticceria Di Lorenzo – a family-run pastry shop in Modica which you can find on the main street (Corso Umberto I, 225).
They are a must try if you are visiting the area.
History of ‘mpanatigghi Meat Cookies
Everyone seems to agree that it was the nuns who invented the ‘mpanatigghi (or “impanatigli”). One story goes that nuns invented the sweet but savory cookie during Lent, when meat is forbidden in the Catholic Church. The nuns were worried that the priests wouldn’t have the energy to keep preaching during the important religious period, and so they snuck the meat into the cookies that the leaders of the church would be better able to give better sermons.
However, the story that is most widely repeated is simply that these nuns didn’t want to waste anything. Before refrigeration, it was difficult to keep meat fresh and it was even harder to bring the nutrious food along on a journey. The nuns realized that mixing and baking the veal this way would help keep it stable for longer – ‘mpanatigghi stay good for about a month – which makes the cookies ideal for travelers.
The cookies could be packed and then eaten along the journey for a sugary protein rush. The tradition of the meaty Sicilian cookies still holds today, even though the days of poor refrigeration are behind us. You will find them year-round in Modica’s pastry shops – even during Lent – so vegetarians be warned about the hidden veal!
You can’t technically bring meat products from Italy to the US, but no one is going to be the wiser if you take a few of these cookies back in your bag.