Published: 20/12/2019 By The Abode TeamHow is it that Christmas creeps up on us so quickly? One minute it's a sunny weekend in September and the next it's the week before Christmas and, despite the ever earlier build-up, it's always a bit of a surprise. Here in Italy Christmas is perhaps a little less commercial than in other places and the lights and decorations in the shops and houses don't really appear until the beginning of December, that said the food stores and supermarkets are filled with traditional Christmas goodies as alternatives to Mince pies, Christmas cake and Christmas puds! Here are a few things to keep an eye open for and to try if you have the opportunity.
Panettone - The Italian version of Christmas cake is a golden, chef's hat shaped cake traditionally dotted with raisins and candied peel. It's quite light and not super-sweet and can perhaps be compared (sort of) to British hot cross buns or teacakes in that it is made with yeast and left to rise before cooking. There are many commercially made ones which are nice but have preservatives so keep a look out for fresh artisan made ones. A tip - you can make a version of bread and better pudding using sliced Panettone instead of the bread.
Pandoro - A tall, star shaped sponge cake which comes with its own little bag of icing sugar to sprinkle on it. Like the Panettone above it's a good idea to let the cake warm up a bit near a radiator or even in the oven to release the flavours and soften up the texture.
Both Panettone and Pandoro can be bought with a variety of often sickly fillings which have been created just for the sake of it; keep away from those and stick to the traditional versions. You can also buy them in a variety of shapes; swan, teddy, Christmas tree etc. Sadly, for the Fawlty Towers fans amongst you, they don't come in the shape of an amphibian landing craft but give it time.
Torrone - Is an almond (or hazelnut) filled slab of hard or chewy nougat like sweet stuff which comes wrapped in rice paper or even smothered in chocolate. The chewy version sticks to your teeth whilst the hard version just breaks. Trust us it really is hard. It is delicious though and you can get torrone flavoured ice-cream with chunks of torrone in it. The chewy version is not for denture wearers or people with capped teeth.
Panforte - Is a chewy and very solid sweet disk packed with dried fruit and held together with....actually I am not quite sure what holds it together. It's generally beautifully wrapped and tied with string or ribbon. One of the most famous Italian confectioners, Naninni from Siena, are renowned for their panforte as well as for Gianna Naninni the singer and her brother Alessandro the ex-racing driving. Panforte is an acquired taste and I have never met anyone who likes it.
Panpepato - A small, lumpy mound of chocolatey deliciousness stuffed with nuts and flavoured with a bit of black pepper, nutmeg and cinnamon. Easily overlooked in the shops amidst the enormous boxes housing Panettone and Pandoro but hard to resist once discovered. It's sort of chewy and very rich. if you like chocolate you'll love it!
Ricciarelli - Leaf shaped, icing sugar dusted and made with almonds. Soft and chewy and absolutely delicious! Can come smothered in chocolate. Fortunately they come in boxes of six or eight.
Cavallucci - A typically Tuscan biscuit made with spices and walnuts. Their origins go back to Lorenzo the Magnificent who, like me, probably liked to dunk them in his tea but traditionally they are dipped into vin Santo or other fortified wines like marsala or passito. Just about to have one now with a cuppa; a friend makes them using a family recipe and they are very good.
So, now you have a run-down of some of the goodies and Italian Christmas can offer; some well know and others less so. Find your favourite and enjoy! Below is a recipe for Panforte to try.
- sunflower oil, for greasing
- edible rice paper
- 125g/4½oz whole, blanched almonds
- 100g/3½oz shelled walnut pieces
- 75g/2¾oz shelled pistachios
- 100g/3½oz candied peel, whole chunks if you can, finely chopped
- 100g/3½oz dried figs, chopped
- 100g/3½oz stoned dates, chopped
- 50g/1¾oz dried apricots, chopped
- 75g/2¾oz plain flour
- 1 tbsp cocoa powder
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- ½ tsp mixed spice
- ½ tsp ground ginger
- 200g/7oz runny honey
- 200g/7oz golden caster sugar
- 2 tbsp marsala or sweet-medium sherry
- icing sugar, to dust
- Heat the oven to 180C/160C Fan/Gas 4. Grease the base of a 20cm/8in springform or loose-bottomed cake tin with a little of the oil, then line with edible rice paper (or baking paper if you can’t find it). Tip the almonds onto a baking tray and roast for 5–8 minutes, or until lightly golden-brown. Remove and set aside to cool. Lower the oven temperature to 150C/Fan 130C/Gas 2.
- When the almonds are cool enough to handle, roughly chop with the walnuts and pistachios. Tip into a mixing bowl with all the dried fruit, flour, cocoa and spices. Mix together.
- Heat the honey, sugar and marsala (or sherry), in a saucepan over a medium heat until the sugar has melted. Allow to bubble for 3 minutes. Carefully pour over the fruit-nut mixture and mix through. Scrape into the tin and use a wet spoon to press the mixture down into a firm, flat cake. Bake for 1 hour – 1 hour 10 minutes, or until the surface is still soft, but not sticky to touch.
- Cool the panforte in the tin for 10 minutes, then carefully run a palette knife around the edge to release, and remove from the tin. If using edible paper, keep on, otherwise remove the baking paper. Cool completely on a wire rack, then dust thickly with icing sugar. Cut into thin wedges to serve.