Italian Christmas cookie roundup

[24 Dec 2009 | By | 9 Comments]

chocolate panettoneChristmas in Italy is generally celebrated from December 24 until January 6. So there is still ample time for Italian Christmas cookies! Since I am in Florence for a year, there is no better time or place to uncover the requisite list of Italy’s Christmas cookie (and cake) traditions. This is a quick list, but the best part is that I include 2 recipes at the end (plus photos); both are from James’ Aunt Rosalind (first generation Italian American).

These cookies vary from the thin, crisp almond macaroons tinned and ready for sale, to the just-baked Amaretti in Italy’s pastry shops—where they are soft and chewy. Amaretti are meant to have a hint of bitterness, often achieved via almonds.

Ring-shaped cookies from Dalmatia; no two recipes are alike. That shape is meant to remind you of coins.

These cookies are a specialty of both Naples and Abruzzo (I suppose it depends who you ask). They are deep fried almond fritters, made with chocolate and almonds.

Make the dough, fry then dip in honey. Worth the effort! (Includes a shocking amount of honey; honey seems to be a common sweetener in Italian cookies… secret ingredient perhaps?).

Rich, tasty Calabrian cookies—not particularly sweet—lemon flavored with lemon icing. Check out the recipe.

This one you have probably heard of (we have certainly eaten quite a few); it is the traditional Christmas cake of Milan. In Italy, you can find them in every bakery, chocolate shop and grocer. There are so many varieties piled high, with or without chocolate, with studded raisins and/or candied fruit, etc. They have a long shelf life. Oh, and although we haven’t yet had leftovers, I have heard that panettone makes for brilliant french toast.

I am learning that ‘what’ is important (think: cake), and that ‘where’ is equally as important. Pandoro is Verona’s take on panettone. It is a yellow, buttery cake doused with powdered sugar—without the raisins or dried fruit. Check out the recipe.

This is a gooey version of fruitcake. Sure it includes the token fruit, nuts and spices (cinnamon, allspice)… but the texture is fastened by a sugary honey chocolate syrup. It is dense, but delicious and much like fruitcake, keeps for weeks or months.

If you want to try any of these Italian cookies, make these. We just bought some in a Florentine bakery, and inhaled them. They are soft and chewy, reminiscent of almond paste. Yet the recipe is (Senesi—those from Sienna—add some orange when they make ricciarelli) incredibly easy and approachable. FYI Trader Joe’s usually has almond meal, which makes this recipe even more accessible.

Fried dough balls dipped in a honey syrup, sometimes stacked like a Christmas tree! They are fried in olive oil, a little unusual to those of us from the states, but a traditional component of Italy’s fried cookies. I found a great recipe for these in Mario Batalli’s book Molto Italiano (p. 474).

Also called Sapienze (because they were made by the nuns of the Monastero della Sapienza); these traditional Neapolitan Christmas cookies are S-shaped. They sometimes have sesame seeds.

Now, this is far from a be-all, end-all list of Italian Christmas cookies. But it is a start, and even better? Here are two authentic recipe’s from my [Italian] husband’s Aunt Rosalind:

bowknotsItalian Bow knots
6 eggs
3 T sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp orange flavoring
1/2 tsp almond flavoring
3 cups flour
2 T butter
1/2 cup powdered sugar

Beat eggs lightly. Add sugar, salt and flavorings to blend. Place flour in another bowl/board and cut in butter. Add egg mixture and knead until a smooth ball is formed.  If the dough is too soft, add a little flour to make a firm, but not hard. Set aside for 30 minutes. Then cut into 4 pieces. Roll on a well floured board until wafer thin. Cut with a pastry cutter into strips 6 inches long by 3/4 in. wide. Pinch in center, or tie in bows to form individual bow knots.

Fry bow knots about 3 minutes, or until light brown in deep fat (I use Crisco). Drain on paper towels. Sprinkle with powdered sugar (a flour sifter is great).  Store in airtight containers in a cool room. Makes about 5 dozen.

pita piataPita Piata
2 cups white wine
1 cup salad oil
1/2 cup shortening
6 eggs
4 T sugar
8 cups flour
1 jigger whiskey (2 T)
6 cups raisins
4 cups chopped walnuts
dash cinnamon
3 cups chocolate chips
1/2 cup light brown sugar, packed
1 jar (24 oz) honey

Boil first three ingredients for 1/2 minute. Set aside to cool. Beat eggs very well. Add white sugar to eggs and mix. Add egg mixture to cooled wine/oil mixture. Pour over flour in bowl and mix well. It should be the consistency of a soft dough. Divide dough into 6 balls and replace in bowl. Set aside in refrigerator and mix the whiskey, raisins, nuts, cinnamon, brown sugar.

Roll each ball of dough thin as pie crust, about 1/4 inch thick, Spread about 1/6 of the raisin & nut mixture on each, add as much chocolate chips as you want, dribble with honey & roll lengthwise, like a jelly roll.  Prick ends closed, Shape into wreaths, candy canes, logs, or rolls.  I brush egg yoke & water on the finished shapes. Bake on greased cookie sheets (I use parchment paper) about 1 1/2 hours at 300 degrees.  Makes 6 wreaths or canes.

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  • Mom said (30 December 2009 at 10:35 pm):

    Janelle…did you forget the flour-amount in the recipe list for pita piatas? Just checking…in case I have time to make these (next Christmas?) Love you, Mom
    See…I am paying attention :-)

  • janelle (author) said (1 January 2010 at 4:53 am):

    Nice catch mom! I just re-found the recipe from Aunt Rosalind, and sure enough I had left out the flour. Just updated it—thanks!

  • LaMaina, Larry said (22 June 2011 at 7:50 am):

    My italian Grandmother made an Christmas/Easter cookie shaped like a pretzel bathed in honey/syrup and powderd sugar. Basically deep fried dough but oh so delicious. Cant think of the name or recipe…do you know…does the name casa teds ring a bell….please answer with recipe if possible….thank you

  • janelle (author) said (22 June 2011 at 11:55 pm):

    Larry: I asked my friend in Italy and will let you know if I find out anything!!

  • Helen Christenson said (7 August 2011 at 6:20 pm):

    It would be wonderful if you could help me with a recipe for an Italian cookie, the name I cannot recall. However, an Italian family made them in their bakery (I can’t recall their names either). They weren’t terribly sweet but they had sesame seeds on the outside and they were a few inches long, round in shape. It has been quite a long time since I had them, so I realize that I am not much help to you.
    Thank you for any advice!!!!!

  • janelle (author) said (10 August 2011 at 3:06 pm):

    Found this one from Mario Batali… is this the one?

  • Sandi said (26 October 2011 at 6:56 pm):

    My italian husband talks about a cookie called cacazoni, made wit chic peas honey and cocoa Is there another name for this? Having a terrible time finding the reciepe

  • Carolina said (28 November 2011 at 11:57 pm):

    Like Larry above, I am trying to find out what the name is to the honey and powdered sugar cookies my grandmother used to make. Did you have any luck finding it, Janelle? Thanks.

  • janelle said (2 December 2011 at 2:32 pm):

    Carolina/Larry: perhaps Stuffoli? they are honey-drenched fritters.
    Sandi: ricetta I think: