27 December 2012

AUNTIE PASTA: Sweet Holiday Treats

SARONNO, Italy - In Italy it’s hard to tell who looks forward to the holidays more, the kids or their grandparents. For different reasons of course.  Maybe the grandparents aren’t quite as enthusiastic as the kids are about what Babbo Natale is going to bring, probably because they know that Babbo Natale is the new guy in town and it’s really La Befana who fills those empty stockings.
Lazio, The Longest Christmas Stocking in the World
The grandparents also know that back in the day, before electronic gadgets and video games, the real Christmas treats were the dolce, the sweet cakes and pastries and goodies that made the holiday special. I remember my father waxing poetically about the orange he found in his Christmas stocking the year before the family emigrated to America, his joy at finding that special treat lasted his lifetime. Who knows how far and how long that orange had traveled before reaching that hilltop village of Piansano in northern Lazio.

It’s the time of year when the gifts, now shiny and new, will soon be forgotten, but the memory of those sweets will stay with us forever. In every town, big and small, from the mountains of Trentino Alto Adige to sunny Sicily, you will find local Christmas specialties that bring a smile and a nod, and a warm remembrance of Christmases past. Here are a few of them.

Starting in the northern region of Trentino Alto Adige you’ll find zelten, a dried fruit and candied fruit cake that gets its name from the German word selten, (rarely), which gives you an idea of how special it is. From Milan we get panettone, probably the most popular Chistmas cake in Italy today. A close second in popularity is pandoro, a specialty of Verona. It’s a tall yellow Christmas cake with the texture of pound cake.

As far back as the 15th century the bakers of Cremona, in Lombardy, were busy making torrone, a nougat candy made of honey, sugar, egg whites and hazelnuts. Torrone is actually older than that though, as it was listed as being served at a banquet in Milan hosted by Duke Gian Galeazzo Visconti in 1395. You find torrone all through Italy these days. In some regions they make it with hazelnuts, in others they use pistachios or almonds, it all depends on what is available locally.

In Siena you’ll find panforte,  an ancient sweet bread of raisins, nuts, white pepper and candied fruit. It’s called panforte – strong bread – because the dough is very stiff and difficult to work with. Siena is also known for ricciarelli, almond shaped cookies that are traditionally served on the feast day of the Annunciation, although they make them for Christmas as well.

In Genoa you’ll find pandolce, a  dome shaped fruit cake similar to panettone, but more dense. It is made with pine nuts, fruits and spices, most of which came through the port of Genoa before making the journey to waiting pastry chefs throughout Italy. Pandolce also contains Zibibbo, a local wine which gives the cake a slightly different flavor than other similar breads. Traditionally, the first cut is made by the youngest member of the family.

Panpepato, or pepper bread, is a specialty that comes down to us from the cloistered nuns of Ferrara, who developed the recipe sometime around the 15th century. On the Mediterranean side of Italy, in Lucania, it isn’t Christmas until the trays of cuscinetti,  small, fried pillows filled with chocolate or a sweetened chickpea cream are in the shop windows.

Heading south to Abruzzo you’ll find parrozzo, a dome shaped almond cake covered with chocolate icing. It gets its name from pan rozzo, or rough cake. At Christmas, the most famous creation in Naples is struffoli, a confectionary wonder of tiny balls of fried pastry dough covered in honey and sprinkled with tiny colored confetti called ‘diavolilli’. 

 Neapolitan Strufoli
In Puglia you start to see the Arab influence on the cuisine of the south starting with the heavy use of almonds and almond paste. Puglia’s mandorlaccio  a almond and honey cake dates back to pre-Roman times. It fell out of favor a few years ago but a few years ago it was brought back by a local baker, and now it has won several major awards. Mandorlaccio is now considered an important product typical of Puglia.

Another typical Pugliese treat are those crispy fried delights known as carteddate or cartellate. They are probably the oldest pastry around, having been found depicted in cave paintings from the sixth century BC. They were linked to the pagan cult of Demeter, the Roman goddess of the earth. The name comes from the Greek word for basket as pastry strips are cut and tied to form a type of basket and fried and then basted with vincotto. Vincotto is a southern specialty wine made from the must of the grapes and flavored with cinnamon, dried orange peel, cloves, grated lemon rind and bay leaves.

Like many Italian pastries, the origin of Sicily’s buccellato is unclear. What is certain is that the Sicilian version of buccellato is a cornucopia of the island’s bounty,  a combination of figs, raisins, dates, nuts (usually almonds) and candied citrus like fruits. The filling is wrapped in a large round pastry shell or made into small pastry wrapped cookies.

There was a time when the richness of the buccellato represented good fortune and prosperity, and it was used to celebrate special family occasions such as baptisms and weddings. Today buccellato is most often seen at Christmas, but unlike its northern neighbors who crank out their Christmas panettone by the thousands, buccellato is still made by hand, one at a time, and that’s nice, don’t you think?  Happy holidays.

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