The most mouthwatering Christmas cakes from around Italy

You may know your panettone from your pandoro, but what about other seasonal treats? Read on for a tour of Italy's regional Christmas cakes.

The most mouthwatering Christmas cakes from around Italy
Panforte from Siena, just one of Italy's many regional Christmas specialities. Photo: DepositPhotos

In Milan it’s all about the panettone, literally 'pan de toni' or Toni’s bread. Legend has it that Toni was the kitchen hand at the court of Ludovic Sforza, Duke of Milan. He burnt the cakes for dinner so threw together a type of medieval spiced bread and presented it at court. The court loved it and the panettone was born. 

Freshly baked panettone in Milan. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

The origins of the pandoro ('pan d'oro' or golden bread) are, as is often the case, both religious and pagan. Some say its star shape refers to the star that led the Three Kings to Jesus. Others believe it refers to the sun, symbol of fertility. Today’s pandoro owes its height to 19th-century pastry chef Domenico Melegatti, who modified the original medieval recipe so the pandoro would rise better. A much older Veronese cake, the nadalin, is its rustic cousin.

The Christmas sweet leavened breads found across northern Italy often have peasant origins. The cresenzin is a rustic, heavier ancestor of panettone from the valleys of Piedmont. In Valtellina they have the bisciola, another dense cake made with sultanas, nuts and dried figs, while Bologna’s panone (big bread) is a sweet, dark loaf filled with dried fruit and occasionally chocolate.

A Valtellina bisciola. Photo: DepositPhotos

There are many variations of what is essentially the same cake. Go to Brescia and there’s the bossolà, called bussolano in Cremona and bisulan in Mantua. It’s a type of ciambella, or soft round cake with a hole in it. Some say it was brought by the Venetians, others believe it has Celtic origins and its shape reflects the good luck symbol of a twisted snake. 

Go to Turin and their festive cake is the panettone basso, literally a short panettone. It’s covered with a hazelnut glaze – no surprise from an area that’s famous for its hazelnut pralines and nutty chocolate spreads. 

A bossolà from Brescia. Photo: marciespics – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, Flickr

In Liguria there’s the pandolce genovese, a fruit bread that can be made tall and airy or flat and crumbly. Bice Comparato, 93, from Albenga on the Gulf of Genoa, recalls how “we used to collect grapes from the vegetable garden and dry them, and my mother would use these in the pandolce. We’d also collect figs that we’d dry out on netting and conserve them in fresh fig leaves that we’d sew up. At Christmas you’d open them and inside there was the dried fig.”

The pine nuts that feature in Genovese pesto also feature in its Christmas cake. “The pine nut is the pine nut. It turns up everywhere,” Bice’s daughter, Brunella Parodi, tells me. 

Tuscan ricciarelli biscuits, made with almond and egg white. Photo: Shaw – CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia

In Tuscany, Simona Casucci, 45, from Arezzo, tells me she grew up eating “the traditional sweets such as ricciarelli and cavallucci biscuits”, made with almonds and typically served with dessert wine, or dried fruit. “People still have this nowadays, although obviously you can get anything you want now.” 

Siena has its panforte, a spicy, chewy cake of fruit, nuts and honey. Rome has its pangiallo, an Ancient Roman ancestor, while Ferrara has pampapato, a chocolate-covered version first made by 17th-century monks at the Monastero del Corpus Domini and considered a dessert 'fit for a pope'.

Panforte from Siena. Photo: DepositPhotos

In Puglia, the emphasis is on the biscuits. Giuseppina Maiorano, 85, from Lizzano in the province of Taranto, tells me they’d start making them after the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th.

“There were almond biscuits, ones with wine, and ones with oil and pepper are delicious. And we’d make pettole, fried pieces of dough with honey, and purcidduzzi, little balls of dough that were fried and then dipped in honey. We’d start eating at lunchtime on Christmas Eve – usually pasta with baccalà – and carry on until about ten in the evening.

“We used to put all the biscuits out on the table and then we’d eat as we played cards and tombola. Then we’d go to mass and it was a huge party because Jesus had been born.”

Pugliese purcidduzzi. Photo: Matteo AmorinoCC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia

Tina Di Staso, 58, from Foggia, grew up in the small town of Trinitapoli. “Christmas begins the night before the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th. There’s always a bonfire near the churches in honour of the Madonna and the older women make frittelle, a bit like panzerotti [fried turnovers], only with flour and yeast.”

How many of Italy's baking traditions survive today? Di Staso says: “My grandmother and mother did more than I do. I work so I make less.” Yet the picture-postcard Italy that so many like to imagine, a tableau of women in aprons cooking together, has a perennial appeal. The reality was often poverty and hardship, but also a sense of community.

“The biscuits were there for anyone who used to come to the house,” Giuseppina tells me. “We’d take things to our neighbours, and they’d bring them to us.”

READ ALSO: The food and drink you need for an Italian Christmas feast

Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP


OPINION: Michelin-starred cuisine is just not suited to Italy

Michelin-starred food has its merits but it doesn't fit with the Italian tradition of cuisine, argues Silvia Marchetti and some frustrated Italian chefs. There's nothing better than a plate of steaming lasagne, she says.

OPINION: Michelin-starred cuisine is just not suited to Italy

I’ve never been a great fan of sophisticated dishes, twisted recipes and extravagant concoctions that leave you wondering what is it you’re actually eating. T-bone steak with melted dark chocolate as topping, burrata cheese with apples, spaghetti with blueberry sauce aren’t my thing.

Hence, I never eat at Michelin-starred restaurants, and it’s not because of the exorbitant bill – paying €200 for a salad simply because it was grown in the private garden of a chef which he personally sprinkles with mountain water each morning, is a bit over the top.

I just don’t think such fancy food has anything to do with the real Italian tradition.

The ‘nouvelle cuisine’, as the name suggests, was invented in France by chef Paul Bocuse. And it’s ‘nouvelle’ – new – not anchored to past traditions.

The philosophy of serving small morsels of chic food on humongous plates as if they were works of art is the exact opposite of what Italian culinary tradition is all about.

We love to indulge in platefuls of pasta or gnocchi (and often go for a second round), and there are normally three courses (first, second, side dish, dessert and/or coffee), never a 9 or 12-course menu as served at Michelin establishments (unless, perhaps, it’s a wedding).

Too many bites of too many foods messes with flavours and numbs palates, and at the end of a long meal during which you’ve tasted so many creative twists you can hardly remember one, I always leave still feeling hungry and unsatisfied. 

So back home, I often prepare myself a dishful of spaghetti because Michelin pasta servings often consist in just one fork portion artistically curled and laid on the dish. In fact, in my view Michelin starred cuisine feeds more the eye than the stomach.

The way plates are composed, with so much attention to detail, colour, and their visual impact, seems as if they’re made to show-off how great a chef is, than as succulent meals to devour. I used to look at my dish flabbergasted, trying to make out what those de-constructed ingredients were and are now meant to be, and then perplexed,

I look at the chef, and feel as if I’m talking to an eclectic painter who has created a ‘masterpiece’ with my dinner. I’m not saying Michelin starred food is not good, there are some great chefs in Italy who have heightened a revisited Italian cuisine to the Olympus of food, but I just don’t like it nor understand it.

There’s nothing greater than seeing a plate of steaming lasagne being brought to the table and knowing beforehand that my taste buds will also recognise it as such, and enjoy it, rather than finding out it’s actually a sweet pudding instead.

More than once, after a 4-hour Michelin meal with a 20-minute presentation of each dish by the chef, the elaborate food tasted has given me a few digestion problems which lasted all night long.

Michelin-starred food has started to raise eyebrows in Italy among traditional chefs, and is now the focus of a controversy on whether it embodies the authentic Italian culinary experience. 

A Milanese born and bred, Cesare Battisti is the owner of restaurant Ratanà, considered the ‘temple’ of the real risotto alla Milanese.

He has launched a crusade to defend traditional Milanese recipes from what he deems the extravagance and “contamination” of Michelin-starred cuisine. “Michelin-starred experiments are mere culinary pornography. Those chefs see their own ego reflected in their dishes. Their cooking is a narcissistic, snob act meant to confuse, intimidate and disorientate eaters”. 

Arrigo Cipriani, food expert and owner of historical trattoria Harry’s Bar in Venice, says Michelin-starred cuisine is destroying Italy’s real food tradition, the one served inside the many trattorias and historical osterias scattered across the boot where old recipes, and cooking techniques, survive.

“Tasting menus are made so that clients are forced to eat what the chef wants, and reflect the narcissistic nature of such chefs. Italian Michelin-starred cuisine is just a bad copy cat of the French one”, says Cipriani.

I believe we should leave French-style cuisine to the French, who are great at this, and stick to how our grannies cook and have taught us to prepare simple, abundant dishes. At least, you’ll never feel hungry after dinner.