The Christmas season in Italy brings many joyful things such as Babbo Natale (Santa Claus), tree lightings and holiday markets selling sweet wine and sausages. It also brings its fair share of special Italian holiday treats. All over Italy, cities and regions are famous for their specific deserts served only at this time of year. Siena, in particular, has three well known and delicious Christmas treats, panforte, ricciarelli and cavalucci.
Panforte is a thick, chewy cake that dates back to the Middle Ages. It was originally made by Sienese monks and handed out as a special gift to important people, such as dukes or visiting royalty. The ingredients in it were considered so precious, some of them were worth more than gold, so the giving and eating of this treat was a truly special decadence.
It is and was made mostly from almonds, honey and candied fruit. It also has a hefty dose of “Christmas” spices, such as coriander, cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg, which give it a wonderfully festive scent. Today, it is sold by the slice or by weight almost everywhere in Italy. Each shop tends to make theirs a little different, some omit cinnamon, some make a darker finished product and some used candied melon instead of candied orange peel. One thing is constant though; it is a holiday favorite in and outside of Siena.
Ricciarelli are melt in your mouth almond cookies originated in Siena in the 15th century. At that time, Siena was famous for its production of almond paste, or marzipan. These cookies were invented using that precious and sumptuous ingredient and because of that, they were served mostly to the upper class. They were even sold in historic pharmacies because of their costly nature. Today, around Christmastime you can find them in most pastry shops. They are formed in the shape of an almond (although much bigger) and are covered in powdered sugar. You might smell them before you see them because the warm scent of bitter almond permeates the room when they are cooking.
The name cavalucci, comes from the word “cavallo” as these cookies were often served at countryside inns and taverns to travelers on horseback. They have a long history since their invention in Siena, and they date as far back as the Renaissance, when they were called biriquocoli. Although the name has changed, the recipe has remained mostly untouched. They are created from a soft, smooth, honeyed dough to which spices such as anise and coriander are added. Once the dough is spiced, almonds or walnuts and candied fruit are also mixed in. The dough is made into thick rolls that are then cut into slices. The slices are rolled into balls and each one is pressed flat. Once baked, they remain soft on the inside, and are often served with sweet desert wine. Sometimes they are even shaped into little horses!
All three of these deserts are sure to put you in a cheerful, Tuscan Christmas spirit. These cookies have been served to families and friends throughout Italy, marking the start of the holiday season, for hundreds of years. Something that tried and true is surely worth tasting, they all go down even better with a glass of vin santo!