Five Lesser-Known Italian Desserts to Try at Christmas
Panettone and pandoro might be the kings of Italian Christmas, but these sweet treats are just as great
Pandoro and panettone are the undisputed rulers of Italian Christmas. They are our dessert and breakfast food for the entire holiday period; the perfect mid-afternoon treat to serve when people come over for a game of monopoly, the great unifier across Italian families from north to south.
But, dear reader, they’re only a tiny part of Italy’s extensive, Christmas-themed sweet repertoire. We are a country known for always living life to the fullest, and that applies to what we put on our festive tables, too. Why limit our dessert choice to only two tantalising items, when we can come up with countless ways to make the end of the meal taste all the more pleasing?
Below, we’ve rounded up five Italian delights you’ll find around the Bel Paese this time of year. Inventive, sugar-laden and utterly addictive they’ll make great additions to your next Italy-inspired Christmas feast.
COMMONLY FOUND IN: Naples and Campania at large
Also known as ‘honey balls,’ struffoli are crispy deep fried balls of sweet dough topped with a honey glaze and colourful candy sprinkles or candied fruit. They are shaped like a wreath or piled into a pyramid, and are an absolute must of any traditional Neapolitan Christmas Day meal.
The origin of their name might derive from the Greek strongoulos, meaning “rounded” (hinting at the chance they were actually first invented there), although others believe that Neapolitan pastry chefs were inspired by a Spanish dessert, the piñonate, to create them. Others still attribute the name to the verb strofinare (to rub), referring to the gesture that is performed during the preparation of this dessert.
Either way, they’re dangerously moreish, and very easy to make at home, too.
COMMONLY FOUND IN: Umbria, Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna and Lazio
Panpepato is a dense, dark round cake studded with dried-fruit and nuts, which is just as delectable as it sounds. It takes its name (literally ‘peppered bread’) from the generous dose of spices included in the recipe – not unlike most Italian traditional sweets from the Renaissance.
Its origins date all the way back to the Middle Ages, however: it was around then that nuts and honey started to be incorporated in confectionery products, perhaps as a result of Arab culinary influences, and that the first versions of panpepato began to appear.
Featuring such decadent, rich ingredients quickly made panpepato a symbol of wealth and prosperity, and today it remains a special cake for special occasions – such as Christmas and New Year.
There are different variations depending on which region you’re in, of course – in Lazio, coffee liquor is sometimes added, while in the Tuscan town of Siena panpepato is actually called panforte (‘strong bread’), derived from the Latin fortis, which refers to the spicy flavour.
COMMONLY FOUND IN: Sicily
Sicily’s quintessential Christmas cake, the buccellato is a shortcrust pastry filled with dried figs, chocolate, and other dried fruit.
The ring-shaped fruitcake derives its name from the Latin buccellatum, or bread, which evolved into a doughnut-shaped bread that the Roman emperors offered to the public during festivals, games, and gladiator fights. Later on, it became associated with the celebration of family milestones and traditionally exchanged as a gift among relatives as a token of good fortune and prosperity.
Its origins aren’t strictly Sicilian: although completely different, it was the buccellatum from the Tuscan town of Lucca – an autumn sweet bread stuffed with sultanas or raisins dating back to the Middle Ages – that inspired the Sicilian version, as a Lucchese community that settled in Palermo began stuffing the buccellato with dried fruit and, under Arab rule, cedars, pumpkins, almonds, and dried figs (Italian history is complicated).
The shortbread pastry is often sweetened with honey and a touch of Marsala or Moscato, then frosted or simply glazed and decorated with candied cherries and other fruits, or a sprinkle of crushed pistachios.
COMMONLY FOUND IN: All over Italy, although it’s originally from Lombardy
A nougat confection primarily made of honey, beaten egg whites, almonds, wafers, hazelnuts and vanilla, torrone is a crowd-pleaser. Almost every region in Italy will lay claims to its origins – and, indeed, dozens of variations exist across the country – although for the most classic and time-honoured version, one should look at the Lombardy city of Cremona.
According to culinary history it is there, in fact, that the dessert was created in 1441 for the marriage of Francesco Sforza and Bianca Maria Visconti, the Duke and Duchess of Milan.
Not that nougat didn’t exist before then. Some believe the Romans already enjoyed the treat in the second and first centuries B.C., as texts from that era claim that the Samnites, an ancient civilization of present-day Campania, invented a delicacy composed of seed oils, egg whites, and honey that sounds a bit like torrone. Similarly, descriptions for nucatum, a sweet made with nuts, honey, and egg whites that bears a strong resemblance to torrone, appear in the Apicius, an ancient Roman cookbook.
A crop of historians also considers torrone as an Arab creation, which would explain its spread in southern Italy, Sicily in particular.
Yet it was in Cremona that the delicacy prepared with almonds, honey, and egg whites in the form of the city’s torrione (towers) really took off.
Classic torrone from Cremona contains honey, almonds, hazelnuts, sugar, egg whites, and wafers and can be hard or soft – the first baking for up to ten hours, the softer not exceeding three.
COMMONLY FOUND IN: Marche and Emilia-Romagna
Cooked grape must, stale bread, eggs, rice and citrus peel are the cucina povera ingredients used to prepare the traditional bostrengo, a Marche and Emilia-Romagna treat whose recipe and even name varies from village to village (you might encounter it as burlengo or frustingo).
Its dialectal appellation seems to be of barbaric origin, probably linked to the presence of the Celts in Romagna, though the first traces of the dessert and its preparation date back to the Middle Ages. Its paternity, too, is disputed between the peasant world of the lower Romagna and that of the upper Marche.
What is certain is that bostrengo arises from the need not to throw dry bread away. As such it was, and still is, a traditional “empty cupboard” treat (some of its versions count over 30 ingredients!) that continues to make its appearance at the Christmas table today.