Italian cuisine has never been just about eating. True, food may be the main course, but it’s also an occasion to pass time with friends and family. It’s even a big part of the reason Italians have a reputation as a warm and friendly people the world over. At no time is this more evident than during Christmas, or as it’s known in Italy, Natale.
One Country, Many Cuisines
Italy has a long, rich history, and the varied regional cuisines and traditions reflect it. Sometimes this makes foreigners associate one region’s cuisine with the whole country. For example, outside of Italy, “The Feast of the Seven Fishes,” or Festa dei sette pesci, is probably our most famous Christmas traditions. But the truth is that this is mainly popular in the south of the country. In the North fish is still a part of the tradition, but there’s more focus on pastas and sausages. Ask a Northernor and Southernor what the perfect Natale meal is, and you’ll get two very different answers. Not coincidentally, this variation is the reason Italy is one of the world’s most popular destinations for culinary tourism.
Two Desserts All Italians Love
One thing every region agrees on, however, is dessert. All Italians have a special spot in their hearts—as well as their stomachs—for sweet breads and cakes, and a few stand out above all the others.
Pandoro, or Pan d’ Oro
First, there’s Pandoro, a word that will immediately bring a smile to an Italian’s face. It’s a sweet, yeasty bread that’s been a part of Italian chrismas festivities since the 17th century. It hails from Verona, the city of Romeo and Juliet, and the name means “golden bread.” Made from the finest flour, butter and eggs availbale, it was originally a delicacy that only the wealthy could afford. The common people had to make due with “black bread,” but luckily this is no longer the case.
Though people eat it year round, Pandoro has a special association with Christmas feasts. This may be because it resembles symbols from the season, typically having a star-shaped baking mold. Being a northern speciality, one popular recipe involves covering the top of the cake with powdered sugar that resemble the snow on the Italian Alps. Others involve hollowing out the centerand filling it with delicious crèmes or fruit.
Pandoro’s main competition in the battle for top Christmas confection comes from Panettone. Likewise a product of the North, Panettone is a speciality of Milan but also popular throughout Italy and the world. Noone knows exactly how old this traditional cake is, but many suspect its origins go back to the sweet breads and cakes of the ancient romans. One thing we do know is that is that its modern form is dates to the early 20th century, when a milanese baker popularized a method causing the cake’s dough to rise three times. This gives the cake its distinctive dome shape. Unlike Pandoro, Panettone isn’t just delicious cake but contains dried or candied fuits. The most popular versions use dried raisins and orange, adding a citron flavor to the fluffy, golden flour.
The taste for these sweet cakes has caught on in a big way internationally. What was originally an Italian Christmas tradition is considered a normal part of celebrations as far away as Latin America. This shouldn’t surprise us, after all, Italians know their food. You don’t need to be Italian, however, to add a Pannetonne or a Pandoro to your own holiday dinner. It’s a great way to do something a bit different—but very delicious—this holiday season.
Chef Luca Manfè has been in the restaurant business since he was 16 years old, working in a pub in his small hometown in Northeast Italy. When he turned 21, he started to travel the world, working in Italy, Australia, Florida, and New York. He had the privilege and honor to work with great chefs, experiencing ingredients and techniques from different cuisines. Ultimately, he landed in New York City, in pursuit of the American dream. Fast forward ten years, and Luca has certainly achieved what he set out to accomplish. Today, Luca is a successful cookbook author, releasing his first cookbook, “My Italian Kitchen,” in May, 2014. He also runs a small catering company called “Dinner with Luca,” and is the first male (and non-American) to win the title of MasterChef USA.