It wouldn’t be the holidays without some spectacular food dishes, and of course, all those delectable desserts you look forward too! It’s kind of a bummer to arrive in Italy just before the holidays only to be in lockdown and not be able to go searching for these treats. There are so many but with time I’ll hopefully be able to try them all. For now, I’ll learn about them just like I’ve been learning about all other things Italian- virtually. I have already written about doing a virtual holiday snack-n-chat where I tried different Italian Christmas desserts. It was only a handful of them, but it was a great introduction to the local holiday treats. More recently I attended an in-depth virtual webinar on Italian holiday desserts, not just including the local area of Naples, but all of Italy as well. Here are some treats that I will be keeping my eyes out for over the next couple of years (if I haven’t already come across them yet):
Panettone is one of the most typical Italian Christmas cakes. The traditional milanese panettone is a sweet bread loaf, cylindrical in shape with a round base and a domed top (the “cupola”). It’s prepared by baking a leavened dough made of flour, water, eggs, and butter, with the addition of raisin and little pieces of candied fruit. A little tip: when buying one, the higher the price, the better the quality!
Similar to panettone, pandoro is made from a rich, eggy dough. The cake is baked in an eight-pointed star-shaped pan that gives it its signature form. It’s modeled after the mountains near Verona, where the cake was first made. It is usually covered with a small amount of vanilla-flavored powdered sugar.
A southern Italy nougat confection, typically made of honey, sugar, and egg white, with toasted almonds or other nuts, and usually shaped into either a rectangular tablet or a round cake. It is frequently consumed as a traditional Christmas dessert. Torrone can have a variety of consistencies; however, they are traditionally consisted of the same ingredients. The final product may be either hard and crunchy, or soft and chewy.
Panforte is a traditional chewy Italian dessert containing fruits and nuts. Known throughout all of Italy, it is associated most especially with Province of Siena. The process of making panforte is fairly simple. Sugar is dissolved in honey, and various nuts, fruits, and spices are mixed together with flour. The entire mixture is baked in a shallow pan. The finished disc is dusted with icing sugar.
Tronchetta di Natale
“Tronchetto di Natale,” or Christmas log, is a dessert that came to Piedmont from Scandinavia and is prepared during the holidays. A very caloric dessert!! It contains: butter, mascarpone, eggs, chestnut cream, cream and chocolate- all ingredients that make it rich and irresistible. Its shape resembles that of a piece of wood. According to legend, it is inspired by the log of wood that Piedmontese peasant families put on the fire to warm themselves during the night of celebration.
Cartellate originated from the northeastern Pugliese town of Altamura, which is the world-renowned “town of bread.” The dough for the cartellate is semi-sweet. The real sweetness comes from the condiment. They are covered with honey, icing sugar, or even better, cooked must (vincotto/grape juice). Vincotto is cooked wine that usually takes about a 10 hour process to make. Cooked must is a condiment that comes from the cooking of the must of the Negroamaro and Malvasia grapes of Salento.
Pandolce is a typical Genoese fruit cake consisting of sultanas (type of nut), currants or raisins, glacé cherries, almonds, and candied orange peel or essence. They are then cooked in a batter of flour, eggs, butter, and sugar. Tradition rules that the cake is brought by the youngest of the family who puts a sprig of laurel in the center, a symbol of well-being and fortune. The head of the family, the oldest, has to receive, cut it, and recite the traditional greetings.
Mustaccioli is a traditional Christmas pastry from Naples. Mustaccioli takes the form of a parallelogram, and consists of a soft, spiced, cake-like interior, covered in a thin layer of chocolate. Originally it was made with grape must, which is no longer used today.
A classic Neapolitan dessert, struffoli are made of deep fried little dough balls. They are very aromatic due to the orange and lemon zest and limoncello, then coated in honey, sprinkles, and candied fruit. Finally it’s shaped into a Christmas tree, a wreath, or a pyramid.
These cookies are originally from Naples and are served at Christmas time. They’re usually made of hard paste. The longer you bake them (without letting them burn) the harder they get. With a rounded shape similar to a flattened donut, the roccocò recipe contains almonds, citrus fruits, and many spices.
The scauratielli are symbolic sweets of the Christmas holidays. They are usually prepared on Christmas Eve throughout the Cilento (in the province of Salerno). The dough is made from cooked flour, which is then fried in oil and flavored with honey.
Zeppole crescuite, or “graffe,” are a traditional dessert from Naples and are prepared for Christmas (but also for Carnival). They are donuts but they differ from the American ones because of the ingredients and also the final result. The recipe includes boiled and mashed potatoes, as well as eggs and grated citrus peel. After frying, they are covered with sugar. Crescuite means “grown.” Unlike the zeppole scauratielli, which are more flat, these zeppole “grow” in size due the way they are made.
Susamielli are typical S-shaped Neapolitan Christmas sweets that are obtained from a dough made with flour, honey, sugar, and all enriched with toasted almonds, candied fruit, and “pisto” (a typical blend of spices that will make them very fragrant). Susamielli are also known as “sapienze,” meaning wisdom or knowledge. In fact they were already prepared in the 17th century by the Poor Clares of the Convent of Santa Maria della Sapienza.
The raffiuoli are oval-shaped biscuits made of imitation sponge cake and covered with a delicious sugar glaze. They are usually prepared a few days before Christmas to be enjoyed during the holiday period. After cooking, the raffiuoli are covered with a thin layer of jam and then with sugar glaze.
The Neapolitan cassata is considered the queen of the Christmas table. It is a “lighter” version of the classic Sicilian cassata, from which it differs in some details with preparation and decorations. The Neapolitan version is certainly less baroque. However, it is a delicious and very good dessert based on sponge cake, ricotta cheese, worked with sugar and enriched with chocolate drops and candied fruit. The cassata will then be covered with ricotta cream or sugar glaze and decorated with candied fruit or whatever you prefer.
Probably one of the most famous pastries in the world, the sfogliatella is a real symbol of the city of Naples. The sfogliatella was created in the monastery of Santa Rosa in Conca dei Marini, in the province of Salerno, in the 17th century. The crust is made by multiple layers of dough, filled with orange-flavored ricotta, almond paste, and candied peel of citron. In Naples, you can also find the “sfogliatella liscia,” a simpler version, made with shortcut pastry.
Another symbol of the city of Naples: the babà. The babà is a mushroom shaped cake, made with a buttery, yeast-based dough, soaked with liquor (typically rum) and is sometimes served with cream or pastry cream. Lemon is a popular dressing choice. It’s one of the most characteristic Neapolitan pastry, but babà has its roots in the “babka,” a typical Polish bolce.
A cornetto, meaning “little horn,” is an Italian variation of the Austrian kipferl and the French croissant. It differs from a croissant in that it is softer and contains less butter. The main ingredients of a cornetto are pastry dough, eggs, butter, water, and sugar. Egg yolk is brushed on the surface of the cornetto to obtain a golden color during baking.
Our roots will forever be from here, America, born and raised. Yet, life requires us to move more frequently than we care to count. Whether living stateside or abroad, you can always find us traveling somewhere. We scout out places that you only think you can dream of one day seeing and we seek out those that aren’t found in guidebooks. We then bring them to life here in our travel memos, so hopefully, one day you too can visit them or at least be able to live vicariously through us. This blog isn’t just about crossing off places from a bucket list. It’s about absorbing and learning how other cultures grow and fit into the same world that we do. Life is short and the world is big. Enjoy and get out there!