Wednesday, 23 December 2020 10:41 Written by Serena Vocella
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Christmas is one of my favourite moments of the year: the colours of the lights in the houses, families reuniting to enjoy the magic of this holiday together and children looking forward to the arrival of Santa Claus. Christmas in Italy is also an opportunity to taste many typical sweets, which are served on our tables every year with a unique flavour that reminds us of how beautiful it is to celebrate Christmas with the people you love.

The undisputed stars of Christmas holidays are “Panettone” and “Pandoro”, because of their historical rivalry. Every year, the fateful question stands: "Do you prefer Pandoro or Panettone?"

I have to admit, I'm with team Pandoro, because how can you prefer candied fruit to powdered sugar? However, I will try to be impartial by telling you the story of these two delicious desserts; in truth, I gladly eat Panettone too, because obviously in my family there are other members, such as my father, who are strong supporters of the Panettone team, so in my house neither one nor the other is missing!


Panettone comes from a leavened dough made with water, strength flour, egg yolks, butter, to which raisins, candied orange zest and cedar are added; once cooked in its paper dish (“pirottino”), it will take on the typical domed shape! 

A legend says that the word “Panettone” comes from “Pan de Toni” (“Toni’s bread”). Toni was a humble scullery boy at the court of Ludovico Maria Sforza known as “il Moro” (The “Moor”), Lord of Milan, in 1495. During Christmas Eve celebrations, Toni was supposed to supervise the cooking of the doughnuts in the oven but fell asleep, burning them. The young kitchen boy then decided to use the leftovers from the doughnut dough, adding eggs, butter, candied fruit and raisins to make a dessert to be presented to the head cook. The head cook was entranced by the scent of the cake and its domed shape, therefore decided to serve it to the diners: the Duchess tasted it first and was highly impressed! Years passed by and the recipe crossed the court walls spreading throughout Italy, changing its name from "Pan de Toni" to “Panettone”.

Another tale tells us of a love story: once again in the court of Ludovico il Moro, the protagonist is Ughetto, son of Giacomo Atellani (from a rich family of Milan) who was in love with Adalgisa, daughter of a baker. Given the humble conditions of the young woman's family and the bad reputation of the bakery, the Atellani family opposed the wedding. To solve the situation, Ughetto was hired by the baker as a shop boy and decided to improve his bread by adding butter, sugar, candied fruit and eggs. It was a huge success. And as it always happens in any good fairy tale, Ughetto and Adalgisa got married and lived happily ever after (by the way, the names Ughetto and Ughetta derive from “ughet” which means “raisins” in the Milanese dialect, one of the ingredients of Panettone!)

As you can see, Panettone is a typical cake from Milan, which after being “industrialised” has conquered the tables of Italians at home and abroad. It even changed in shape, when in the first years of the last century Angelo Motta and Gioacchino Alemagna, owners of the cake firm “Motta Alemagna”, introduced the 'pirottino': thanks to this particular paper container, panettone took on a high and cylindrical shape, characterized by a 'domed' top. As of now, old Milanese people still consider Panettone Motta and Alemagna as the best!  

But why is Panettone associated with Christmas? The tradition of eating a special bread for Christmas goes back to the Middle Ages. Starting from 1395, all the ovens of Milan were allowed to cook wheat bread, only at Christmas. Infact, the Corporations of Milan had decided that the division between the bread of the poor (called “pan de mej”, or millet bread) and the bread of the rich and nobles (called “micca”, or white bread) should no longer exist on Christmas Day, when everyone may eat the same bread as a symbol of sharing and equality. It was “Pan de Sciori”, or “Pan de ton”, that is luxury bread, made of wheat with the addition of butter, sugar and zibibbo, therefore particularly rich in ingredients. Most likely that "Pan de ton" is the great grandfather of our Panettone!

Panettone today exists in different variations: high, low, stuffed with cream, with or without raisins, but the original recipe remains the one described above.


The history of “Pandoro” is more recent and defined. Some say it comes from the “Nadalin”, a star-shaped cake which nobles at the Scaligeri court in Verona ate at Christmas; others say it is a variation of “Pane di Vienna”, sweet bread of Habsburg origin similar to a “brioche”. These desserts are very rich in butter, the ingredient that makes pandoro so tasty and fluffy.

Pandoro has an official date of birth: Tuesday, October 14th, 1884. That day, the Veronese pastry chef Domenico Melegatti presented the patent of a Christmas cake to the Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce of the Kingdom of Italy (in Verona there is still a company named Melegatti which makes a good Pandoro). For his recipe, Melegatti was inspired by an ancient Veronese tradition. During the Christmas period, precisely on the evening of Christmas Eve, the women of the villages gathered to knead the so-called “Leva”, a leavened dessert covered with sugar grains and almonds. The inventor of Pandoro took the Leva recipe, eliminated the cover, which could hinder leavening, and added eggs and butter to make the dough softer. Another Veronese, Angelo Dall'Oca Bianca, a painter, designed the truncated pyramid with 8 tips, and quite overnight Pandoro became hugely popular. But why is it called “Pandoro”? Legend has it that a boy of the Melegatti pastry shop, seeing that the colour of the dough was similar to gold, cried in amazement: “Pan d’oro”, that is Golden bread!

As to me, why do I prefer Pandoro so much? The reason is the delicious “mascarpone” cream that my mom prepares every time! We cut the Pandoro horizontally into star-shaped sections and stuff each layer with this cream: when I eat it I can't help but lick all my fingers!

In addition to Panettone and Pandoro, Italy is full of many other typical Christmas sweets which vary from region to region and, sometimes, from city to city, as usual with food in Italy.

Starting from Northern Italy, we have “Tronchetto di Natale”, “Pandolce”, “Bossolà” and “Panforte”.

In Piedmont (North-Western Italy), you will eat “Tronchetto di Natale” (“Christmas small log”), a log-shaped cake made of chocolate, cream, brandy and chestnuts. The shape is inspired by a legend according to which it is considered a good omen to burn a large log of wood in the fireplace for the year to come.

"Pandolce", on the other hand, is typical of Liguria and consists of soft focaccia filled with candied fruit and raisins. An ancient custom says that the youngest at the table has to remove the olive branch placed on the Pandolce while the oldest one cuts the dessert and distributes it to the guests.

In Lombardy there are many Christmas sweets, including the aforementioned Panettone di Milano; in Brescia (still in Lombardy, but a different province) you will have "Bossolà". The name derives from the Celtic "bés' mbesolàt" which means "coiled snake" and is a soft and fluffy doughnut. This dessert is meant to be a symbol of good luck and refers to the idea of power and rebirth.

In Tuscany, “Panforte” (meaning “strong bread”) is the king: a low and soft baked product, filled with candied fruit, almonds and spices. This dessert was called “Pane Natalizio” ("Christmas Bread") and has a millenary origin, infact the first written records date back to the year 1000.

Going further south I want to tell you about "Struffoli", “Cartellate" and "Torrone".

"Struffoli" are a Neapolitan recipe, the legend (there’s always a legend!) says that they have been brought in Naples by the Greeks. Actually, the name derives from the Greek “strongoulos” (“rounded”) and “pristòs” (“cut”), therefore together “cut round ball”. They are in fact balls of sweet dough, fried and then dipped in honey, decorated with coloured sprinkles and candied fruit (as usual, a light recipe from the South). I know this dessert thanks to my grandmother, who is not Neapolitan but from Southern Lazio: she taught this recipe to my mother (her daughter-in-law), who loved it so much and prepared it for any holiday, not just for Christmas!

In Puglia, on the other hand, you may eat traditional "Cartellate": thin sheets of dough made with flour, oil and white wine, worked in the shape of a rose, fried in abundant oil and garnished with honey or must. The shape represents the halo or the bands that wrap the Baby Jesus, but also the crown of thorns at the time of the crucifixion.

Sicily always delights us with numerous desserts, and among these delicacies “Torrone” boasts a centuries-old tradition and is a nougat prepared with sugar, honey, chopped almonds or sesame. But you may find another sweet named “Torrone” back north, in Cremona (south-eats of Milan, close to where I live): here “Torrone” is a nougat made with sugar and honey, with the addition of vanilla, lemon zest and candied peel as well as the usual almond and hazelnut mixture. A real calorie bomb!

The list is not over because in Italy it is easy to find different traditions in every region and almost every city. Each family jealously preserves its special recipe to pass it on to future generations. But I think now you have enough elements to choose your champion among the various cakes. And when you choose one you’ll have to explain your choice in detail, because, you know, in Italy food at Christmas is a serious business!

Buon Natale e Felice Anno Nuovo, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year by Serena.


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Read 1551 times Last modified on Sunday, 27 December 2020 09:49

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