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Italian Holiday Desserts
Celebrate the season with sweet stuff from all over Italy
Food is the center of all Italian life - and that is even truer during the holiday season in Italy. While everyone seems to know something about the famous seven fishes dinner southern Italians enjoy on Christmas Eve, less is known about the delicious dolci (desserts) that follow the meal and often last through the new year. Like most Italian desserts, these holiday treats tend to be less sweet than the ones Americans seek. But they are often just as tasty and pleasing to the eye. Indeed, Italian desserts will liven up your taste buds and your table. Here are a few worth putting on your holiday menu -
Panettone is a Milanese dome-shaped cake highlighted by raisins and candied fruit. In Italian bakeries and supermarkets the world over, you'll find boxed panettone for purchase during the holiday season. Some people toast slices of these cakes and serve them topped with mascarpone cheese or jam. I've even made panettone French toast for a fancy holiday breakfast. The original panettone probably dates back to the medieval period, according to lifeinitaly.com, and was denser and flatter. Regardless, the fluffier, modern version has become a classic and is the reigning king of Italy's Christmas desserts.
The folks in Verona boast creating the star-shaped pandoro, another sweet bread served during the holiday season (which I have to admit I prefer over panettone because it's a simpler recipe without raisins or candied fruit). Again, many Italian stores will sell this dessert in a clever little box for gift giving over the holiday season. And although this sweet bread takes a shower in powdered sugar, you can heat it up and serve it in much the same way as you would panettone. The modern pandoro, according to lifeinitaly.com, is about 100 years old, but its origins can be traced to Roman times.
Just like all things Italian, all these sweet breads come with a story about the invention of their recipes. Some are simple and some are far-fetched tales. None seem as far fetched as the two stories about panforte, Siena's contribution to the Christmas dessert table. A mixture of honey, spices, candied fruit, and almonds, panforte seems to be a magical sweet bread, according to About.com's Italian Food site. One of the stories about its invention has a nun discovering all the ingredients at the bottom of a pantry after the mice ate holes in the bags, placing these ingredients in a pan and heating them up, and then using the hot contents to turn the Devil who was posing as a cat into dust, leaving just enough for the mother superior to sample, according to About. The other story has an orphan child bringing a stale piece of bread to the baby Jesus, when Joseph takes a crumb for a bird and returns the rest to the now distraught boy, who thought his gift was not good enough for the Savior, according to About. But the boy returned home to find his parents alive and surrounded by a feast that included panforte. Of course!
My people in Naples make struffoli, balls of fried dough smothered in honey and adorned with colorful sprinkles and candied fruit piled high to form a pyramid, for Christmas. I've tried my hand at struffoli, and it requires some serious patience. Much like when you're making gnocchi, you have to get a feel for the dough and the shape it should be. It's time consuming, but the sweet goodness of the dessert is your reward. Be sure to eat them as soon as you've finished making them because that's when they're at their best. In the past, struffoli were made by nuns and given as holiday gifts to noble families, according to the Luciano Pignataro Wine Blog. Today, we're all noble, so everyone can have some struffoli.
Nociata, a honey and walnut dessert, is a popular Christmas treat from Lazio. Although the region is better known for its olive trees, the word for nuts is derived from Latin. There's lots of mystique about the walnut tree, according to Bella Online. Still, this sweet dessert that is usually made with few ingredients gets top billing over the holidays. Even celebrity Chef Mario Batali shares a recipe for nociata on the Food Network site.
Even Americans who are looking for cookie recipes with Italian flair for their Christmas exchanges won't be left out in the snow. Italian sugar cookies (the popular ones you've seen in pastry shops with colored sprinkles), mostacciuoli (S-shaped to look like a handle-bar mustache), roccoco' (hard cookies for dunking in sweet wine), and old-fashioned biscotti (also for dunking in espresso) can be found on the Italian holiday dessert table. A box of these Italian cookies makes for a great holiday gift if your loved ones have the sweet tooth. Or you could opt for torrone, a nougat specialty of Cremona, which is available all year but especially at Christmas. Torrone also nicely fits into little boxes and gift bags that can be tucked neatly into stockings by Babbo Natale or La Befana. With these kinds of desserts, the sweet memories of the holiday season will linger all year long.
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