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ITALY EXPLAINED

Five Italian Christmas desserts you should try

As the days shorten and the nights become cold, it’s time to stock up on comfort food and hunker down in preparation for the holidays. Here are five sweet Italian treats to tantalise your tastebuds and get you in the Christmas spirit.

A panettone is a traditional Italian Christmas treat.
A panettone is a traditional Italian Christmas treat. Photo: Nicola/Flickr

If you’ve ever been served a typical Italian breakfast of sweet cornetti pastries, ciambelle donuts, crostata tarts, or just… cake, you’ll know that Italians have a highly developed sweet tooth.

This is given particular free rein at Christmas, when the supermarket and delicatessen shelves are stacked high with national and local seasonal sweets.

Here, we’ve picked five of Italy’s better-known winter holiday desserts.

Head over to your local Italian deli, or if you’re feeling ambitious, throw on an apron, and try out these Christmas treats, Italian-style.

READ ALSO: Six quirky Italian Christmas traditions you should know about

Panettone

Milan lays claim to this light-as-a-feather domed cake made from sweet brioche bread, usually studied with pieces of candied fruit.

When the Christmas period rolls around you’ll see boxes of panettone stacked from floor to waist-height in every supermarket you enter.

A standard supermarket panettone is simple and affordable, but more elaborate creations from a real pasticceria can be flavoured with anything from chocolate chunks to pistachio cream, and can cost up to tens of euros.

A traditional panettone.

A traditional panettone. Photo by katya rumyantseva on Unsplash

Pandoro

Somewhat similar to a panettone but denser, richer, taller, and with a slightly more delicate flavour and texture, the pandoro hails from Verona.

True to its name (pandoro = golden bread), pandoro is yellow-golden in colour. It sits higher than an a panettone and is baked into a star shape, with the base wider than the top.

pandoro is usually served plain with a dusting of icing sugar (often provided in a separate packet, to be added right before serving by shaking along with the cake in its cellophane wrapping to completely coat its exterior).

National favourites, pandoro and panettone are the two desserts you’re likely to find vying for prominence at any Italian’s Christmas dinner table. Some families will proudly declare their preference for one over the other; others refuse to play favourites, and buy both.

A Christmas pandoro.

A Christmas pandoro. Photo: Nicola/Flickr.
 

Certosino

Perhaps the closest thing Italy has to a British Christmas cake, this Bolognese specialty dating back to the Middle Ages is a rich, fruity concoction made with flour, almonds, pine nuts, a mix of candied and cooked fruit, cinnamon, wine syrup, cocoa and chocolate.

Another name for a certosino is panspeziale. It’s unclear whether the speziale refers to the speziali, or apothecaries, who originated the recipe, making it ‘apothecary bread’, or comes from the local dialect word for ‘special’, making it ‘special bread’.

Like a Christmas cake, a certosino is best left to age for several weeks after baking and then decorated with candied fruit, walnuts and almonds and brushed with warm honey or jam before serving.

Struffoli

A specialty from the southern city of Naples, struffoli are little donut-like balls of sweet deep fried dough mixed with orange and lemon zest, coated in honey and covered in coloured sprinkles and candied fruit.

In the olden days they were cooked by nuns in convents, who would deliver them as gifts at Christmas to wealthy aristocratic families who had been especially generous in their donations to the poor.

Struffoli are traditionally shaped into a Christmas wreath or piled up into a pointed mound to resemble a Christmas tree.

File:Struffoli.JPG
Neapolitan struffoli. Photo: WikiCommons

Torrone

When you see this white, nut-dotted nougat appear in the shops and markets, wrapped in clear plastic and tied with a ribbon, you know Christmas isn’t far away.

Exactly which part of Italy can lay claim to originating Italian torrone is somewhat disputed. Some say Cremona, in northern Lombardy; others say Sicily in the south, having adapted a Middle Eastern recipe.

What is generally agreed upon is that its name comes from the Latin torrere, meaning ‘to toast’, as the nuts contained in torrone should first be toasted to bring out a caramelly aroma and crunchy texture.

Almonds are probably the most popular nuts to use in torrone, but hazelnuts or pistachios are very popular alternatives.

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ITALY EXPLAINED

Why are Italians ranked among the ‘unhappiest in Europe’?

Despite the romantic image portrayed of Italians living 'la dolce vita', one study has ranked the country as among the unhappiest in Europe. Here's the data behind the discontent.

Why are Italians ranked among the 'unhappiest in Europe'?

Italy’s population has placed among the least content in Europe, according to a new study by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

Happiness can be a woolly concept and hard to define, but the 2022 World Happiness Report has attempted to do that in a global survey of almost 150 countries.

Italy ranked 31st worldwide, faring well on a worldwide scale, but in Europe it lagged way behind some of its neighbours – who not only ranked highly in Europe but globally too. Finland, Denmark, Iceland and Switzerland took the four top spots globally.

In Europe, Italy also placed behind France, Germany, Austria, Ireland and slightly behind Spain and Romania.

Why were Italians ranked as being unhappy?

Based on scores over the period 2019-2021, the study took into account the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, which may go some way to explaining Italy’s poor happiness index as it bore the brunt of the first waves of coronavirus infection in Europe in 2020.

Of course, there will be individual variations and happiness is difficult to scientifically define or measure.

Researchers used the following seven categories to assess each country’s happiness level:

  • Social support
  • Life expectancy
  • Freedom to make life choices
  • Generosity
  • GDP per capita
  • Perceptions of corruption
  • Positive and negative affects – dystopia (evaluating how much better life is in a given country in comparison to ones with bad living conditions).

“Our measurement of subjective well-being continues to rely on three main indicators: life evaluations, positive emotions, and negative emotions,” the report said.

“Happiness rankings are based on life evaluations as the more stable measure of the quality of people’s lives.”

Italy scored quite well in terms of its GDP, social support and healthy life expectancy, but respondents expressed a much lower value of freedom to make life choices compared to its European neighbours. Italians didn’t fare so well in dystopia either.

The report highlighted how Italy’s anxiety and sadness grew in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, based on social media analysis.

The Covid-19 pandemic could go some way to explaining Italy’s poor happiness ranking. (Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP)

Five weeks after the outbreak of Covid, Italy showed the highest levels of anxiety globally. Levels of sadness grew too.

“On average, sadness reached its highest level three weeks after the outbreak, and remained stable for the following two weeks. The gradual increase of sadness terms occurred a while after stringency of social distancing measures increased, and remained high about two weeks later,” the report stated.

READ ALSO: Twelve statistics that show how the pandemic has hit Italy’s quality of life

Positive emotions also dropped in Italy as public health measures became stricter, the report noted.

However, throughout the turmoil, Italy ranked highly for supporting and taking care of each other – it was in fact the nationality least likely to simply take care of themselves.

Italy has consistently ranked poorly for perception of corruption: though there have been steady improvements over the past decade, it continues to rate as one of the most corrupt nations in Europe.

Despite the country’s overwhelmingly positive image abroad, Italy is in fact no stranger to poor rankings in various international comparisons on everything from corruption levels to English language proficiency.

You can find out more about those rankings below:

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