At this time of year the sight and sounds of Italy awake in the neighborhood as storefronts boast an abundance of Italian confections just in time for Christmas celebrations. For generations, no family, village, or region in Italy has been without its own festive baked good or sweet for Christmas. In traditionally kept Italian homes at holiday times, purchased dolci fill the dining room to the rafters along with homemade sweets whose names are different literally from house to house and whose flavorings vary from block to block, town to town. Christmas is a time when we test our roots, and our family ties.
In Northern Italy, where Germanic, Slavic and French influences are keenly felt, nuts, butter and eggs are prime ingredients in Christmas desserts. As one moves south, Mediterranean influences creep in with olive oil, pine nuts and exotic spices until eventually, the confections become wildly creative with sweet dried and candied fruits, honey and an abundance of sugar with the influence of the Arab period in southern Italy and Sicily.
The Christmas sweet that most unifies all regions of Italy is the nougat candy called torrone. Originally made in Cremona, torrone is a chewy blend of honey, almonds and egg whites. “As many versions as cities in Italy have since appeared”, according to John Reilly, co-owner of Dairy Fresh Candies on Salem Street, “the vast selection of torrone imported from many regions of Italy should make any Italian homesick”. Not only can the ingredients evoke flavors such as hazelnuts, almonds, pistachios, chocolate, candied fruits and liquors but the consistency of torrone can also vary from soft and chewy to so intensely hard as to only be divided into cherished morsels by a hammer and ice pick.
In Italy, every region also has its own special Christmas bread. The custom of giving Christmas breads to one’s entire family and friends derives from Christian tradition, Jesus became bread incarnate on the night of the Nativity. As symbols of abundance and fertility, and assurance of a sweet new year, many ritual breads are enriched with nuts, raisins, chocolate, dried and candied fruits, even black pepper and spices. The most popular and available are panettone and pandoro. Panettone, a buttery, rich sweet yeast bread studded with raisins and candied fruit is now made in numerous versions — covered with chocolate, glaze or hazelnuts and filled with zabaglione or hazelnut, liquor or champagne creams. Panettone, the most traditional Italian Chrismas cake, imported in distinctively shaped boxes can be seen hanging from food shops all over the neighborhood. Pandoro, golden yellow, shaped like a tall star and dusted with powdered vanilla sugar is made with relatively few but choice ingredients: yeast, flour, sugar, butter and eggs. Unlike panettone it does not contain dried or candied fruit. Although they can be used as a base to create many spectacular desserts, they are most traditionally cut into wedges and served with a glass of wine, liquor or a cup of coffee.
Other Christmas sweets have the word bread in their name — panforte, strong bread and panpepato, peppery bread — but they are not really breads. Panforte, associated with Siena in Tuscany is a compact cake made of candied fruits, nuts, honey and spices and dusted with powdered sugar or a fine chocolate glaze. Panpepato, depending on the region of Italy, is usually studded with nuts, dried and candied fruit, chocolate and the pungent tastes of pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and cloves.
Many almond based confections associated with Christmas include: amaretti, small round slightly bitter almond cookies, packaged loose in clear bags or wrapped in pairs in flowerlike tissues; ricciarelli, delicate, diamond shaped cookies made of almonds, sugar and honey, covered with powdered sugar or chocolate glaze; pasta di mandorla, marzipan or pasta di mandorla, almond paste and sugar shaped into fruit and vegetable forms.
A greatly appreciated Christmas gift is also a box of Italian chocolates. Whether it be dark or milk chocolate with luscious fillings or the very popular Baci and Gianduiotti, these chocolate products are packaged in distinctive luxury boxes renowned for their elegance and romantic charm. A sweet tooth can also be treated to the tradition of Italian candies, among the best in the world. Hard candy, soft or chewy, filled with creams or coffee, with fruit, with balsamic herbs, and with fresh flavors as mint, anise, and licorice. There are also the famous gelatin fruits, soft mouthfuls of pulp that maintain the flavor and the perfume of Sicilian citrus fruits as well as flavors from fruits of the Italian forests.
For the most refined palates, marrons glace, large meaty chestnuts cooked in a sugar syrup become delicious soft candied fruits and are available in elegant packaging. A variety of chestnut pastes, creams, roasted chestnuts in jars and even dried chestnuts are available. For the purest at heart, fresh chestnuts from Italy can also be found in most of the stores.
For those who want a quick but luxurious dessert for the holiday season, look for the imported glass containers of Baba al’Liquore, tiny brioche cakes in liquor or La Frutta Spiritosa, whole fruits such as figs, pears, apricots, or cherries steeped in various liquors. These are quite decadent when placed over ice cream or sponge cake.
Not a dessert, but also available during the Christmas season is mostarda, a traditional and exotic accompaniment to the savory course of the holiday dinner. Although there are many regional variations, Mostarda di Cremona, luscious whole fruits candied in a thick, golden, mustard flavored, spicy conserve is most prevalent in our markets.
If you get caught up in the commercial frenzy of the holiday season and find that the time that you usually set aside to bake your families traditional sweets has escaped you, dash off to our fabulous pasticcerie, pastry shops to find all the freshly baked traditional desserts that you remember — struffoli, mostaccioli, croccante, straccii di nonna, cartellate, marzipan, pizzelle and cassata.
Why not continue the traditions of the early Romans who offered honey-covered cakes to the gods in the belief that divine nourishment was sweet. Isn’t sweetness synonymous with happiness and joy? Whether you are putting together a gift basket of sweets, looking for that perfect elegant sweet gift or need a special ingredient to complete your own holiday baking, look no further than the specialty grocers, pastry shops or confection stores in the North End. Buon Natale.