Almost every town in Italy has their special cake, cookie, or pie for Christmas. Here's a quick rundown of some of the best known, in order of popularity. In case you were wondering, my personal favorites are Panforte and Pandoro.
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Panettone is the traditional Christmas Cake of Milano, and it has become the most common Christmas cake in Italy thanks to its keeping qualities: industry can churn them out, and they stay fresh. So industry does, and pastry shops everywhere also make them. It's a deserved popularity, because it is good, and if you make it yourself you can include exactly what you want -- raisins, candied fruit, chocolate chips, and so on.
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Struffoli (they're always plural) are fried dough balls dipped in a honey syrup, shaped into a wreath, and sprinkled with diavolilli, a type of candy. Sounds (and is) quite rich, and is also probably extremely old -- this sort of use of honey as a sweetener dates back to the Romans.
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Some say Panforte is so good it allowed a Novitiate nun to drive the Devil from her convent, while others say it's older still, the centerpiece of the feast the baby Jesus prepared for a street urchin who gave him his last crust of bread. Could be either, but it's good regardless.
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Ciambelle, from Lazio
These ring-shaped biscuits from the region around Rome are made with wine and anise seeds and are wonderful for breakfast or dessert.Continue to 5 of 11 below.
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Susamielli, another Neapolitan Christmas Cookie
These traditional Neapolitan Christmas cookies are S-shaped. For two possible reasons: First, in the past, they were called sesamielli, and covered with sesame seeds. Second, they were (and are) also called Sapienze, because they were made by nuns of the Monastero della Sapienza.
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Buzzolai, cookies from Dalmatia
Buzzolai are ring-shaped cookies, and were an essential part of every festivity in Dalmatia, in part because their round shape brings coins to mind, and in part because they're quite tasty. Every family had a recipe for them, and they vary greatly. Here are a couple, one simple, for Christmas Eve, and one much more complex, for Christmas Day.Continue to 9 of 11 below.
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Pandoro, Verona's Snowy Mountain Cake
Pandoro is Verona's answer to Panettone, a rich, buttery cake that's sprinkled with an abundance of powdered sugar. Unlike panettone, it never contains candied fruit, and for some, this is a plus. It is remarkably good, in any case. Sometimes slices of it are served with a rich chocolate sauce, for dipping.
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Ricciarelli, Siena's Orange-Laced Amaretti
Mention amaretti and many think of the little, crisp, tinned almond cookies one finds for sale in supermarkets. However, there are many variations; in particular, in many areas, the freshly made amaretti sold in pastry shops are soft and chewy (the only requirement for amaretti is some bitterness, generally from almonds or peach pits, to offset their sweetness). In Siena, they add some orange when they make ricciarelli, and the results are extraordinary.