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.
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.
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 cake), 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.
A 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.
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.
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.
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.