In Italy, December 8 (the day of the Immaculate Conception) marks the beginning of the run-up to Christmas and, more specifically, cookie baking. As far as Tuscany’s concerned, and in Siena in particular, cavallucci cookies are the most popular. They’re not much to look at: neither elegant nor stunning and the colour doesn’t grab your attention. They’re neither glazed nor sprinkled with sugar and nothing about them screams Christmas. Cavallucci di Siena are round and rustic, squished on top, dusted with flour and a bit lumpy. Appearances are deceptive because as soon as you take a bite, you’ll feel the heat of the spices and savour the richness of the nuts and candied fruit that will get you quickly into the festive spirit.
Cavallucci and other Christmas confectionery from Siena
As soon as Advent begins, all of Siena’s bakeries and grocery stores pile high with local christmas cookies: cavallucci, panforte, ricciarelli and copate, spiced confectionery that speak of a time when the most sought-after sweets were a luxury that only the wealthy could afford.
Traditional Christmas sweets from Siena date back to the Middle Ages, in spice houses and homes of rich merchants.
The origin of the name cavallucci
In the Renaissance, cavallucci were known by the name berriquocoli. They have stayed the same down the centuries, keeping honey, sugar, flour, candied peel and spices as ingredients. So, how did they come to be named cavallucci?
According to Giovanni Righi Parenti, the Sienese gourmet and author of the book La cucina Toscana (Tuscan cooking), the name cavallucci could have come from the custom, which has since been lost, of stamping the figure of a horse on the freshly baked cookie.
Another explanation, also from Righi Parenti, is that the name derives from country inns, where carriage drivers stopped on their way to the city. These spiced treats were sold to stop hunger from striking and as an invitation to drink at the establishment. The etymology from “cavallari” to “cavallucci” is near enough.
Recipe for cavallucci cookies from Siena
This is the recipe I’ve been using for years around Christmas time, no honey, and with mixed candied orange and citron peel. Eat them at the end of a meal with vin santo.
Ingredients for about 25 cookies
- 650 g flour
- 350 g sugar
- 200 g shelled walnuts
- 170 g water
- 90 g candied orange and citron peel
- 30 g icing sugar
- 12 g baker’s ammonia
- 15 g cavallucci spices (a mixture of ground cinnamon, coriander, nutmeg and aniseed)
- Preheat the oven to 180°C.
- Chop the nuts coarsely and place in a large bowl with the cubed candied peel, icing sugar, spices and baker’s ammonia. Use your hands to mix all the ingredients together. Add the flour and mix again.
- Dissolve the sugar in the water in a pan over low heat. (Make sure that the sugar doesn’t become caramelized, otherwise the cookies will be too hard.)
- When the sugar has melted, pour the syrup over the other ingredients and mix using a wooden spoon.
- Use your hands to shape the mixture into 5 cm diameter logs on a well-floured surface. Cut into rounds: the recipe should make around 25.
- Shape into small balls and sprinkle with flour. Press a finger into the middle and arrange them well spaced on a tray lined with baking paper.
- Bake the cookies for no longer than 15 minutes in a hot oven. Let cook completely before eating.
The cavallucci will keep for several days in a sealed container or in a canister.