From north to south, Italian delicacies to enjoy during Advent
As Christmas nears so does the time for Christmas sweets - those tasty homemade and industrial products whose flavors and fragrances accompany us during the Christmas holidays. There is a great variety of Christmas sweets in Italy, with significant differences from one region, one province, and one city to the next. Just think: depending on the location, the same sweet can be called by a different name. So it’s worth providing you with as thorough a guide as possible.Let’s start in northern Italy, precisely in Trentino Alto Adige, a region with bragging rights to numerous original sweets, from sweet breads such as Zelten (a type of fruitcake - the version from Trentino is a peasant’s version and contains more dough than candied fruit as compared to that from Alto Adige), enhanced with various ingredients; to Buchteln, which is filled with marmalade, covered with sugar and vanilla, and baked in the oven. Then come the cookies (of German origin but now also typical in Alto Adige) such as Spitzbuben or Lebkuchen, in the shape of Niklaus and Krampus (typical characters in the German Christmas tradition), and at times filled with marmalade or walnuts. Speaking of the north, one cannot go without mentioning Mecoulin, a sweetbread with raisins that is typical of Valle d'Aosta, and is the ancestor to panettone.
Heading a bit south, we find more common sweets that are no longer regional, such as Verona’s pandoro in Veneto or Milanese panettone in Lombardy (with its so-called Venetian version that is similar to an iced panettone, but without the raisins and candied fruit), both widespread throughout the Peninsula. In Piedmont the crescenzin - black bread enhanced with butter, icing sugar, raisins, walnuts, apples and at times figs - reigns.
Even further south is Liguria and its Genoese pandolce in several versions, like that made with chestnut flour in Campomorone (called panmorone); then Bologna’s certosino or panspeziale, which in ancient times were made by chemists (who were then referred to as speziali), and then by Carthusian monks, or certosini.
Emilia Romagna is also home to pampepato, the specialty of Ferrara that is traditionally made with various ingredients, the predominant one being dark chocolate (both in the dough and in the icing), alongside hazelnuts, almonds, cinnamon and pepper. Terni (in Umbria) also boasts its own pampepato, the recipe of which also calls for pine kernels.
Tuscany, rather, is home to panforte, of Sienese origin. It contains candied fruit, honey, sugar and spices. Nonetheless, the sweet of all sweets in this region is the legendary ricciarello: a soft (but not crumbly) cookie in the shape of an oval lozenge, covered with icing. In central Italy, in Umbria, we find Assisi’s rocciata, a honey sweet similar to the better-known strudel, while the Abruzzi region is native land to Pescara’s parrozzo, which is so good that even poet Gabriele D’Annunzio praised it.
Also made in this region are the caggiunitti - filled, fried biscuits.
Christmas celebrations in the Marches include frustingo, a sweetbread made with wholemeal enhanced with dried fruit.
Heading further south towards Lazio, we find the classic Roman pangiallo, which dates back to the Imperial Era, when these decorated sweets were distributed during the winter solstice celebrations - as they were considered to augur well for the return of the sun. Pangiallo is embellished with a very thin layer consisting of a golden crust, which gives this sweet its typical bright appearance.
Another Christmas tradition in Lazio involves subiachini, biscuits used to decorate the tree; zeppole, on the other hand, are made in the southern part of the region. These are bread fritters dipped in hot honey.
Campania is the capital of Christmas biscuits. During Advent, S-shaped susamielli are made with liquid honey, along with more well-known mostaccioli, struffoli, divinamorea (made with sponge cake covered with pink icing and named after the nuns belonging to the Divino Amore order of secluded nuns), and the very hard roccocò (after the French rocaille due to their shell shape). In the south we find Basilicata’s cicirata, a fried, ball-shaped sweet made with honey and pieces of sugar; Molise’s soft, yellow, corn panettone; and Calabria’s turdilli (composed of small fried pasta cylinders dipped in honey) and susumelle (biscuits covered with icing sugar or chocolate).
Calabria is also home to mostaccioli (mustazzoli in Puglia), diamond-shaped biscuits made with flour, honey and dried fruit and often covered with sugar and chocolate icing.
A wide variety of Christmas sweets abounds in Apulia, including the well-known cartellate (carteddate in local dialect) which, along with boconotti, are from Foggia. They consist of a very thin layer of puff pastry made with flour, oil and white wine. The dough is shaped to form a sort of rose, which is then fried in abundant oil.
The local recipe calls for dipping the cartellate in warm vincotto (cooked wine) or in honey and then dusting them with cinnamon, icing sugar or colored sprinkles.Then there are the islands. The Christmas tradition in Sardinia includes making pani’ e saba (pan di sapa), an ancient sweet also referred to as a peasant’s sweet because it was originally bread made only with cooked must. Today, it is enhanced with several typical products, first and foremost dried fruit.
In Sicily, traditions during Advent involve preparing and enjoying buccellato. This shortcrust-pastry ring-shaped cake is filled with dried figs, raisins, almonds and orange rind - or other ingredients which differ from one area to the next.
THE MOST COMMON SWEET: TORRONE (NOUGAT)
The most common Christmas sweet is certainly torrone, or nougat, which can be found in its many varieties throughout Italy. There are two main types of nougat: hard and soft.
The type depends on several factors, beginning with mixture's cook time. Hard nougat can be cooked for up to 12 hours, while soft nougat is cooked for less than 2 hours.
Most common are almond and hazelnut nougat.
In Abbruzzo, standard is to add cocoa to the mixture.The main cities where nougat is made are Cremona and Benevento; however, different versions of this sweet are also made throughout Italy.
Among these, worth mentioning is the nougat made in Cologna Veneta, called mandorlato di Cologna, or nut brittle from Cologna - in Ospedaletto d'Alpinolo, Alvito, Camerino, L'Aquila, Dentecane and Grottaminarda, where it is given the Latin-Sabellian name of cupeta, and in Bagnara Calabra and Taurianova, where the artisanal version is quite famous.
Nougat from Sardinia is also well-known, particularly nougat from the Campidano, Logudoro and Barbagia areas. It is particularly sweet due to its use of honey, but does not contain any sugar, which leaves it with an ivory white color.
In Sardinia it is also common to add orange or lemon rind, wafers, pine kernels and vanilla to nougat.Another island, another version: Cubaita is the classic Sicilian nougat particular to Messina; it is enhanced with pistachios, honey and almonds, which give it a unique flavour and lively color. (Sesame seeds may also be added.)
The more modern version is made with classic nougat and hazelnuts, then covered with chocolate.
This is not generally a homemade product because processing the chocolate is rather complex and requires the use of special tempering machines to keep the mixture at the proper temperature.
Finally, we point out the croccante or almond-crunch version, a Christmas sweet that is sold year-round, especially during fairs or festivals. It is made with chopped almonds or hazelnuts that are covered with melted sugar and then caramelized.