Christmas in Italy
Christmas in Italy

Flavors of Italy

Italian Traditions of the holiday season filled with the delicious smells of Christmas breads, almond paste and candied fruits

Every Region has its Holiday Sweets

Italy celebrates its traditional sweets throughout the holiday season. Every region has its own delicious specialties.

The cherished Italian holiday bread. Jeweled with candied fruits (particularly citrus) and raisins, it first came into being in Milan about 1490 and was quickly adopted throughout Italy, from the Alps to Sicily. Legends abound concerning the origin of panettone. The most popular is one that tells of a young aristocrat smitten with the daughter of a pastry chef named Toni. To impress the father of his beloved, the young man pretended to be an apprentice pastry cook and invented a wonderful sweet dome-shaped bread of exceptional delicacy. This new fruit bread was an enormous success; people streamed into the bakery to buy the exceptional "pan de Toni."

In Milan, businessmen adopted the habit of giving panettone as a Christmas gift to their clients. However, for a long time panettone was seen as a luxury accessible only to a select few, until the development of new production techniques made it available to everyone. A process combining natural yeast and a paper mould allows the yeast to leaven the dough to produce a cake that is light as a feather.

Ingredients: flour, yeast, milk, butter, eggs and sugar, dating back to original recipes.

Presentation: Today panettone is well-known around the world and a wide range of varieties is available: cream-filled, covered with chocolate or almond icing; they are often sold in a distinctive box with a handle.

Serving: Panettone can be enjoyed in a thousand and one ways: sliced thinly or thickly, covered with various sauces, filled or topped with cream preparations. It is particularly delicious toasted for breakfast, dipped into hot or cold milk until it softens. Panettone is not only a Christmas tradition but a delicious complement to a fine meal.

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Ricciarelli have been popular for centuries. Like every sweet and almond-based dough, they were called "marzipan." Documents from the Renaissance describe sumptuous banquets in France and Italy where ricciarelli were served. Today, these thin diamond-shaped biscuits are still a great favourite; they are served for special occasions or during the holiday season. Their presence, with their distinctive taste and crunch, always adds a festive note to dessert platters.

Ingredients: Made from whole fresh almonds that are ground and combined with sugar and honey, ricciarelli can either be white, covered with icing sugar, or thinly coated with chocolate, a modern twist on the original recipe.

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It was in Venetia that Pandoro was invented, shaped like a Christmas tree and dusted with snowy icing sugar to represent snow or twinkling stars. In fact, if it is cut horizontally, each slice looks like a star. Pandoro's popularity runs a close second to that of panettone. Pandoro, or "golden bread" is of more recent origin and perhaps for this reason is more representative of modern tastes. Pandoro was first produced in Verona a century ago, at a time when changing tastes favoured lighter yeast breads rather than heavier almond paste creations. It closely follows a traditional Venetian production method

Serving: As with panettone, pandoro can be enjoyed on its own; traditionally, however, it is napped with cream or served with a sauce made from mascarpone, champagne, melted chocolate or whipped cream. Sometimes the top is hollowed out and filled with iced cream, zabaglione or other tasty fillings.

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From Sienna comes Panforte ("strong bread"), a dense confection rich in spices, honey and dried fruit. It's traditionally served with sweet wine. It is said that in 1205, serfs and peasants from the convent of Montecellesi were obliged to bring honey and spice cakes to the nuns as a form of census. The cakes were so delicious that they soon fell into the hands of the lay people!

At the time, herb and spice-based medicinal mixtures were made in the convents; later on these tasks were given to speziali (pharmacists); the responsibility for making panforte was also passed on to them. That is why, even today, some of the best-known brands of panforte still bear the names of the old pharmacist families. The best-selling variety today is Margherita Panforte, named in honour of Queen Margherita, wife of the Italian king Umberto I.

While it provides a special touch to any meal, panforte is especially popular during the holiday season.

Ingredients: fresh almonds, candied fruit (particularly citrus), spices and honey.

Presentation: Panforte is round.

Serving: Panforte can be served with a wide range of wines, but in Italy the preference is for Vin Santo. This sweet grape wine was at one time produced by the Tuscan monasteries.

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Sicily isn't left out either, with a multitude of almond, nougat and ricotta-based treats… The best-known cakes are Torroni, a kind of nougat, and cannoli, pastry tubes filled with ricotta.

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But the most original specialty remains Buccellato. It's made with dried figs, pine nuts, almonds, Marsala and apricot jam, all placed into a flavored lard-based pastry. Once made in enormous quantities for the holidays, it was brought out for family, friends and visitors. Today its dimensions are more modest and it is shaped like a fragrant crown adorned with candied fruits

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