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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 the great autumn wardrobe switch is serious business in Italy

Some of Italy’s foreign residents may still be wearing t-shirts, but Italians are preparing for the most stressful style-related event of the year: the summer-to-autumn wardrobe switch. Silvia Marchetti explains what it’s all about.

Why the great autumn wardrobe switch is serious business in Italy

People have always said to me that Italians stand out (particularly abroad) because of the way they dress, the style of their clothes, the designer labels, the gorgeous bags and shoes. 

But it’s not because they really do dress better than others, rather they are extremely picky about what they wear, and when they wear it, at which precise time of the year. 

Italians are dead serious about adapting their dress code to the different seasons in response to dropping or rising temperatures. The ‘wardrobe switch’ is a major event that consumes entire days of a family’s weekends or spare time. From the kids to granny, all must change their apparel. I remember my grandparents used to mark it on their calendar, a bit like when you have to take the car for the annual check called the tagliando

There are four major wardrobe switches, as many as the seasons. The most tiring is the summer-to-autumn one, which usually occurs mid-September when the summer heat abates. 

Summer clothes are taken out of the closet and laid on the bed, then autumn apparel is plucked out from an upper closet space and neatly laid on the other side of the bed to be scrutinized. 

READ ALSO: Pumpkin risotto and the great wardrobe switch: How life in Italy changes when autumn arrives

It’s then time to do some clearing out: the switch is the time to try on autumn clothes and see if they still fit or are no longer wanted or liked (meaning you’ll be shopping for new ones). 

This stage can take hours, if not days. Jackets, which usually take up more space and are kept in the cellar or attic, are also cleaned of dust and tried on. 

Photo: Dan Gold/Unsplash

The summer apparel is then packed away and replaced by the autumn clothes, which are laid out in the same spot where the t-shirts and shorts once were. The same goes for shoe switches. Back in the box with those flip-flops, which are a major no-no after September 20th, and back on the shelves for boots and sneakers. 

When an Italian decides that summer is over, summer is over even if it’s still 25 degrees outside. My boyfriend just switched from shorts to trousers, even though he’s sweating most of the time. 

And it may seem that there’s a particular dress code that everyone follows. Autumn calls for ‘camicette’ shirts, light leather jackets, jeans, and bright little stylish scarves in silk or cotton to protect against the first potential cold air. Rain coats and casual jackets dubbed spolverini (dusters) are also taken out of storage.

The motto is ‘vestirsi a cipolla’, meaning ‘to dress like an onion’, with layers of shirts and sweaters that can be peeled off throughout the day depending on temperature swings. 

READ ALSO: Ten Italian lifestyle habits to adopt immediately

It’s a way to avoid sweating at noon or getting too cold in the evenings. But it’s also a stylish dressing habit to show that we are fully equipped, including financially, to cope with the changing seasons. If you don’t buy at least one new item of clothing per season, that’s just ‘not cool’.

A ‘booster’ wardrobe switch happens again in December, when the piumini, or hardcore winter ‘duvet’ coats, and knitted wool sweaters are taken out to reinforce the autumn apparel. 

Even if it never gets that cold in Italy compared to some countries, Italians still like to wear wool hats, gloves and some even wear furs, heavy boots and mountain-climbing uniforms – perhaps just for the sake of showing off some of their cool skiing apparel. 

Whether in autumn, winter, spring, or summer, the wardrobe switch is also an excuse to go shopping. Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP

Then when spring arrives, winter clothes disappear and autumn attire starts mixing with some t-shirts, sleeveless jackets, and lighter cotton pants. 

But it’s still too early to wear shorts for men or skirts without stockings for women: showing off white bare legs is so unstylish.

Alas, when it’s finally summer, flip flops and sandals pop out again and the switch is an occasion to throw away unwanted summer clothes from the previous year and buy new bikinis, skirts, tank tops and fancy colorful shirts. This can be quite painful if you happen to have gained weight during the cold months. 

Italians are serious about wardrobe changes given their reaction even to just slight temperature drops or hikes.

I know that for foreigners seeing Italians wearing coats now in September even if it’s not yet so cold can be quite shocking in the same way it is for Italians to see Americans or Germans wearing t-shirts in December. 

READ ALSO: ‘Five ways a decade of living in Italy has changed me’

But climate change is disrupting the traditional wardrobe switch. My granny used to say that the so-called ‘middle seasons’ in Italy which are those between summer and winter (she meant autumn and spring) were luckily very long and pleasant. But nowadays even Italy has very short springs and autumns. In recent years there’s been a sudden jump from hot summers to half-winter seasons. 

This affects the way Italians are dressing, as I see fewer leather jackets around or raincoats unless it’s actually raining. The other day I was swimming in a pool and in the afternoon when I came back home there was a strong wind and I had to put on my piumino (long duvet coat) plus a hat. 

Luckily I have a huge walk-in closet so the left part is for winter, the right part is for summer and in between are all those items that used to fall within my granny’s ‘middle seasons’. So I always have everything at hand to cope even with the uncontrolled effects of climate change.

Friends of mine are already going into depression because they’re planning the wardrobe switch for next weekend – but they already miss the summer and don’t want to give up on the sexy shorts and elegant sandals. 

There’s no doubt about it: when it comes to clothes, most Italians can be very fussy indeed.

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