Panettone is undoubtedly the most typical Italian Christmas dessert.
Born in the north of Italy, it can now be found on the table of every Italian family at Christmas. If you do not know about it, panettone (which can be translated as big bread) is a sweet bread loaf with a cupola shape, usually weighing more or less 1 kilo.
Panettone became famous in the early 20th century in Milano, when two bakers started producing these sweet in big quantities. Those two bakers were Angelo Motta and Gioacchino Alemagna, which are still some of the most important brands producing panettone in Italy.
The original recipe requires only flour, water, eggs, butter, sugar, candied fruit, and raisins. However, over the years endless versions have been created, adding a number of ingredients to this amazing recipe. It can now be found with cinnamon and all kinds of spices, chocolate, cream, chestnuts, nuts, different types of wine, you name it. I am a fan of the original recipe, but I always find it quite interesting to see what they come up with every year.
Actually, panettone has a very important rival, which is pandoro. Pandoro comes from Verona and is a sweet yeast bread without candied fruits and raisins. It is taller than panettone and has a 8-pointed star section. Being sweeter than panettone, it is usually the one children like the most. Actually, as I have written in this post last year, the one between panettone or pandoro is a life choice.
However, these two are not the only Christmas desserts we have.
Thanks to the amazing diversity that characterizes the Italian food tradition, each Italian region has its own Christmas dessert – if not more. There are so many that, when I decided to write a post about them, I actually had to make a selection, otherwise I would have had to write the longest post ever. So I made a choice and I selected ten of them, going from north to south.
Let’s now see some of the Italian Christmas sweets that are not panettone.
Zelten is a Christmas cake from Trentino-Alto Adige, up in the Dolomites. The cake is made with dried figs, almonds, nuts, and candied fruits and it is said to take its name from the German selten, which means rarely and which is perfectly suitable for a rich cake consumed only on very special occasions.[You can see some pictures of zelten here].
This kind of Christmas cake is typical of Valtellina, a mountain area in Lombardia. It is quite similar to panettone, as it is a sweet loaf with nuts and candied fruits. It is considered to be a poor recipe as it was made with buckwheat flour and honey, two poorer alternatives to white flour and sugar.[You can see some pictures of bisciola here].
3. Pandolce (or panettone genovese)
Pandolce is the panettone of Genova. Purists won’t even consider any other kind of panettone, here in Liguria. There are two versions of the recipe, a tall and a short one: the tall one is the most traditional one, as it is has a much older history, but since it takes quite a while to make it, the short – and much faster – version was invented when chemical yeast became available. Personally, I am a fan of the short version (you can find my recipe here), but the tall one is really great as well.[You can see some pictures of pandolce here].
Ricciarelli are almond biscuits covered with powdered sugar that come from Siena, in Tuscany. The recipe dates back to the 15th century, when the almond paste was widespread in the city, and it was reserved for the tables of rich families and noblemen. Almond paste was so precious that it was sold in spice shops, together with some of the most precious spices of the time.[You can see some pictures of ricciarelli here].
Another typical Christmas sweet of Siena is panforte. It is a very old sweet, as the first account of such recipe dates back to the year 1000. Panforte is a thin spicy bread which, exactly as ricciarelli, was originally destined to the rich and noblemen only, because it contained some of the most precious spices of the time. The delicious recipe contains almonds, nuts, hazelnuts, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, mixed spices, candied fruit, candied zest, honey, sugar, and flour. Believe me, it’s amazing![You can see some pictures of panforte here].
Here’s another Christmas bread, but it’s a bit different from the ones described above. This bread, which is typical of the region of Umbria, is sweet and sour at the same time and this is due to the fact that there’s black pepper inside, giving it its particular flavor. As all the other recipes described above, it has a very long history: panpepato was probably brought to Italy by the spice caravans in the 16th century and then modified according to the Italian taste.[You can see some pictures of panpepato here].
Here comes a dessert that has a lot of different names, slightly similar to one another, depending on the area where it comes from. It is typical of the Marche region, but very popular in Emilia-Romagna as well. It is a very poor recipe, which makes use of stale bread, dried fruit, and other similar ingredients, which change depending on the area and the recipe.[You can see some pictures of bustrengo here].
With cartellate, we go further south and reach Puglia. They also have many different names and the recipe changes slightly from province to province. Cartellate are rose-shaped fritters coated in vincotto or dried fig syrup and then served by adding a sprinkle of cinnamon. I have never tasted them, but they seem delicious![You can see some pictures of cartellate here].
Zeppole are a typical Christmas treat in Naples and in the region of Campania, which have nothing to do with those prepared in March for Saint Joseph – usually quite famous abroad. Zeppole di Natale, especially typical of the Sorrento area, are deep-fried ring-shaped pastries coated with honey and sugar sprinkles.[You can see some pictures of zeppole here].
We end this journey throughout Italian regional sweets in Sicily with cubaita, a lovely Christmas treat which can be found in other versions elsewhere in Italy as well – under other names, needless to say. Cubaita probably comes from the Middle East, since the name derives from the arab qubbiat, which means “with almonds”. The cubaita, also known in Sicily as giuggiulena, is a nougat-like candy whose main ingredient is sesame, together with honey and almonds.[You can see some pictures of cubaita here].
But now tell me: did you know some of the sweets I listed? If so, which ones are your favorite? I’d love to know!
If you are interested in learning more about Italian culture and lifestyle, I’d suggest you jump on my digital Vespa and join Be Italian For A Month, your 30-day virtual journey to Italy.
You will also learn some Italian words, you’ll receive some typical Italian recipes – ready to be cooked and enjoyed, you’ll get to tour around Italy, and learn about Italian traditions, proverbs, stereotypes, you name it. Plus, some cute surprises along the way!