Holiday baking is one of the cornerstones of the holiday season and many of us have recipes for traditional Italian Christmas cookies and desserts that stem from family and local traditions. Almost every single town and region throughout Italy has fabulous holiday recipes and many of these have been adapted by Italian Americans and Italian immigrants worldwide. They reflect the availability of local ingredients plus the input of acquired new cultural baking recipes.
Michele Di Pietro and I shared our Italian heritage Christmas cookie recipes and holiday desserts, plus a few other recipes we love.
Michele's family cookie recipes
Michele did a lot of holiday baking with her mom and one of her favorite recipes is pizzelle made with anise. Another of her favorite cookie are snowball cookies loaded with nuts and butter, and sometimes known as Mexican wedding cookies.
She also made Czechoslovakian Christmas cookies with her mom: a cookie with a lemon and ricotta batter and layers of jam, usually apricot. These are baked in a brownie pan and then cut into squares, and they freeze beautifully.
Struffoli (honey-dipped, deep-fried sweet dough balls), a holiday treat originally from Naples, were not part of Michele’s holiday baking tradition although nowadays she says you find them quite frequently in the greater New York area. Read about Naples and its great food here.
Michele says you can also now find zeppole, a larger and equally delicious deep-fried sweet dough ball. This delicious fritter is usually stuffed with a custard or pastry cream and it’s typically served on March 19, the feast of Saint Joseph. Michele‘s grandmother made a version of zeppole stuffed with anchovies!
Classic Italian Christmas Cookies
Almost every town in every region in Italy has its own variation on a rich and delicious holiday treat filled with nuts and dried fruit. Usually there’s a small amount of flour – about 15% – and then all the ingredients are chopped and combined together to form a flat round or rectangular loaf, similar to the flat loaf for biscotti. In Tuscany this cake is known as panforte, and in Siena panpepato because freshly ground black pepper is added to the ingredients.
Here in the Lazio region where Rome is located this cake is known as pangiallo. The small town where I live, Riano, celebrates a Pangiallo Festival on December 8th.
One of my favorite cookies is buccellati, a Sicilian Christmas cookie stuffed with dried summer figs.
Melissa Bellini, an accomplished Italian American home cook shares her fabulous recipes on Instagram and in videos. She recently shared a wonderful family Christmas cookie recipe, giurgiulena. Thirty years ago Melissa’s mother-in-law shared this recipe with her and it’s a nugget-like cookie made with honey, sesame seeds, almonds, cinnamon and orange zest. The cookies are cut into diamond shapes and they are chewy and delicious! Here are the ones she made this year:
Classic Italian Christmas cookies and holiday desserts, by region (alphabetically):
Abruzzo - Parrozzo
Basilicata - Calzoncelli
Calabria - Petrali
Campania - Struffoli Napoletani
Emilia-Romagna - Certosino di Bologna
Friuli Venezia Giulia - Potiza, Focaccia Natalizia
Lazio - Pangiallo
Liguria - Spongata di Sarzana
Marche - Cavallucci di Apiro
Molise - Pepatelli di Natale
Piemonte - Torrone
Puglia - Cartellate
Sardegna - Pane di Mosto
Sicilia - Crispeddì di Messina
Toscana - Panforte di Siena
Trentino Alto Adige - Kipperl all Vaniglia Altoatesini
Umbria - Pinoccata Bianca e Nera
Valle d'Aosta - Lou Mécoulen
Biscotti are traditional at Christmas time and I like to add dried cranberries for a festive and tasty variation. Here's the recipe for Cranberry Hazelnut Biscotti.
Some other Christmas Cookies we love
A few years back one of my sisters gave me a recipe for chocolate truffles. When you taste them your mouth is full of a comfy and delicious dark chocolate truffle flavor. If you didn’t know better you would think you are tasting a chocolate truffle, but these truffles are made from ground Oreo cookies and cream cheese! They're rolled into walnut-sized balls and drizzled with melted dark chocolate: positively luscious! And if you don’t tell, no-one will know the difference!
In the Genoa area the most popular holiday cookie is anicini, flavored with anise.
Chocolate chip cookies are always a favorite during the holidays. Chocolate chips are not always available everywhere in Italy so instead I make a peanut butter thumbprint cookie and put a gianduia chocolate in the center.
Other Holiday Desserts
The most popular cake in Italy that you find on every single holiday table is panettone (a tall raisin bread-like cake) and pandoro (a fluffy and tall bread-textured sweet cake). Both of these holiday cakes are a typical gift exchanged with friends and family, and usually beautifully packaged, each one more beautiful than the next. I bake my own panettone; here's the step-by-step recipe.
One of the most delightful breakfast treats imaginable is panettone French toast. At the end of the holiday season I usually buy up a few of these just so I can make this French toast recipe.
Tina Prestia (tinastable.com) from Bologna often travels around Italy sampling all kinds of delicious foods. She recently tasted a variation on the traditional tiramisù recipe made with biscotti. I loved the idea and I’ve adapted the recipe still further to include sweet dried cranberries which makes it a wonderful dessert to serve over the holidays!
And finally I have to mention a fabulous recipe in Letitia Clark’s new Sardinian cookbook, Bitter Honey: it’s a Saffron Custard and Panettone Pudding. It’s Letitia‘s take on panettone and an amazing dessert to serve over the holidays. I plan to serve it New Year’s Eve.
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Take a look at this flashback to last year's 2019 Christmas in Rome.