Generally speaking, the most famous and beloved traditional Italian pastries and desserts (we’re not talking about tiramisù, a relative newcomer that exploded onto the scene in the 1980s after its debut at Le Beccherie restaurant in Treviso) hail from the southern and northern reaches of what is now modern Italy.
In the south, the Kingdom of Two Sicilies brought the royal house of Bourbon from Spain in the 18th century, and, with it, a predilection for rich, ricotta- and custard-based dishes like cassata, cannoli, sfogliatelle, and pastiera – all elevated by the exotic spices, candied fruit, or marzipan introduced to Italy’s southern ports via centuries of Mediterranean trade. In the north, the Turin-based Savoy dynasty brought French-influenced desserts across the Alps, and with it rare or expensive ingredients like chocolate, eggs, and cream that form the base of favorites like bonèt, panna cotta, and zabaione.
And central Italy? While northern and southern cuisines still carry strong inflections from their royal history, Tuscany is instead known for its “cucina povera”, or rustic rural fare. Sure, the Medicis would occasionally import a French chef to supervise their palace kitchens, but the most prominent Tuscan dishes from ribollita to lampredotto are the product of frugal farmwives making use of leftovers and offal to feed large families on a tight budget. Many Tuscan sweets also echo the region’s agricultural history, eschewing ingredients that were once hard to come by for modest farming families (refined sugar or flour, chocolate, spices) for ready replacements like honey, chestnut flour, homemade jams, and grapes or raisins – the base of classics like crostata, castagnaccio, and schiacciata con l’uva.
That isn’t to say that Tuscan sweets should take a back seat to their northern or southern neighbors. In fact, where Piemontese and Neapolitan desserts are often dairy- or egg-based and don’t travel well, Tuscan sweets lean towards baked cookies and cakes that can easily be shipped across the world and sampled fresh even if you can’t make it to Tuscany.
If you want to add a touch of central Italy to your holiday table, here are some of the cookies and cakes featured in our Florentine food boxes…perfect for yourself or as a gift to the Italy-loving gourmand on your list!
Delicious Tuscan Cookies
You say potato and I say potahto…you say biscotti and Tuscans say cantucci. These crisp, twice-baked, almond-studded cookies we generally call biscotti in the US are more commonly known as cantucci in central Italy and are one of the most popular desserts in the region. Many Tuscans cap off a meal with a small plate of cantucci and a glass of sweet Vinsanto for dunking (the double baking make cantucci quite dry, so they are best enjoyed by dunking in sweet wine or a cup of coffee or cappuccino).
Originally from the Tuscan city of Prato, cantucci (sometimes called cantuccini) are traditionally made with almonds but modern variations include pinenuts, pistachios, hazelnuts, anise seed or cinnamon, and even chocolate in the case of Lunardi’s famed “biscotti al cioccolato”. The recipe includes no yeast or dairy and the second baking removes any extra moisture, so these cookies take weeks to go stale.
If you prefer soft, chewy cookies, ricciarelli are for you. These sweet almond-paste based cookies are said to have been introduced to Tuscany in the 14th century by Ricciardetto della Gherardesca (hence the name “ricciarelli”) upon his return from the Crusades in the Middle East and today are produced primarily in Siena.
Considered a Christmas treat, ricciarelli are traditionally made from ground almonds or almond paste, sugar, honey, and egg whites (much like macaroons); the dough is then formed into oval-shaped cookies and left to rest for 48 hours before baking. The outside surface dries out during this time, causing the finished cookies to have a crackled top once removed from the oven. After a final dusting of powdered sugar (or, less common, chocolate glaze), the cookies are ready to be enjoyed.
Delectable Tuscan Cakes
One of the most storied Italian sweets, this low, dense fruitcake-like concoction dates back to 13th-century Siena and was originally made with flour, honey, spices and ground pepper (it is still sometimes called panpepato for this reason), dried figs, fruit jam, and pine nuts. Modern versions are just as rich, but also include sugar, almonds, a mixture of dried fruit including orange and other citrus, and a powdered sugar dusting over the top.
Small slices of this chewy, rich cake are traditionally served during the holiday season to accompany coffee or Vinsanto at the end of a meal. There are as many versions of panforte as there are bakeries that produce it – each recipe a closely guarded secret, of course – but according to popular lore, the cake must have 17 ingredients to represent the 17 contrade (districts) of Siena.
Another Sienese specialty, torta floriana was invented by Floriana Nanni of the landmark Le Dolcezze di Nanni bakery in the tiny hamlet of Monteroni d’Arbia just south of Siena. Similar in size and texture to panforte, torta floriana is instead made exclusively with walnuts and dried figs and cooked in a copper pot and brought naturally back down to room temperature.
Though torta floriana is generally served as a dessert at the end of a meal, small slivers can be paired with semi-aged and aged cheeses like pecorino or Parmigiano-Reggiano and served as a unique antipasto.
Regardless of whether you’re on Team Panettone or Team Pandoro, you’ll enjoy this boozy take on one of Italy’s most iconic holiday cakes. The renowned Pasticceria Bonci in Montevarchi has taken the classic, slow-rising panettone dotted with candied citrus peel and raisins and soaked it in a fragrant sweet wine syrup to take it up a notch, combining the rich flavor of a buttery panettone with the kick of a wine-based infusion. Panbriacone is one of the specialties of this famed Tuscan bakery and a centerpiece of many holiday tables in Italy.
If these Tuscan treats have your tastebuds tingling, be sure to browse our Florence food boxes where you can choose from a selection of collections featuring these Tuscan cookies and cakes…delivered in time for Christmas!