The traditional Christmas cakes of Tuscany
With Christmas only few days away, in Tuscany we are getting ready for the celebration of the biggest festivity of the year. Millions of lights already illuminate the streets, Xmas markets fill the squares, my Christmas tree is ready and decorations light the façade of my house. Now it is time to think about the typical food and traditional Christmas cakes for the lunch menu of the 25 December.
Being gluttonous of sweets, my favourite course is with no doubt the dessert including, of course, the Christmas cakes of the Tuscan tradition.
Today I want to tickle your appetite introducing you the classic Tuscan Christmas cakes we usually serve on the table during Christmas holidays.
The classic Tuscan Christmas cakes
The Cavallucci are of one the traditional Christmas cakes of Tuscany, originating from Siena but widespread all over the region. They have a white colour, a distinctive irregular shape being handmade, a quite hard consistency and a delicious taste of spices and honey. The recipe is very easy to make. First you prepare the caramel with water, sugar and honey. Then you add yeast, flour, candied fruits, hazelnuts and honey. You cut the dough in small pieces and finally bake them. The best way to taste Cavallucci is with a glass of liquor or sweet wine.
They have been famous since the Renaissance with Lorenzo il Magnifico when they were prepared mixing only flour, water and spices. Later, the taste became more enjoyable with the addition of the other ingredients.
At that time, the biggest consumers of Cavallucci (literally small horses) were the guests of roadhouses, that were traveling riding a horse or with horse-drawn carriages. That’s the reason of their funny name.
Ricciarelli – Photo Credits: Joana Kulinarno
Ricciarelli are soft marzipan biscuits made of almonds, sugar and egg white. The marzipan dough is made using the millstone, so before to be cooked in oven, it has to rest at least two days. It is enriched with vanilla and candied fruits, and once baked it is cut into diamond shaped cookies. The rough surface of the biscuit is covered by powdered sugar and then it is placed on a layer of host.
The origin of these Christmas cakes dates back to the fourteen century in the Tuscan courts, following ancient eastern recipes. Legend says that the knight Ricciardetto Della Gherardesca from Volterra, once back home from the Crusades, introduced these cakes to his castle.
They are usually served with sweet wine or with the classic Tuscan Vin Santo.
Ricciarelli are the first confectionary of Italy to obtain the protection of the European Union receiving the PGI status on 2010.
The Panpepato is the Sienese cake par excellence. It is made of wheat flour, honey, dried figs, jam, spices, pine nuts and is flavoured with pepper.
The origin of the Panpepato hails from the 1000. It was considered a precious cake, because was made using expensive and rare ingredients as spices and pepper imported from the East. For this reason, only the clergy and the aristocracy could afford to buy it. Only druggists and apothecaries could prepared the dough, receiving big quantity of pepper to make medicines. The surplus instead, was used to make this energetic and healthy cake, which was sold by taverns and small shops.
The Panpenato is a source of pride for the local confectionery and the Sieneses particularly love it thanks to a legend about the famous battle of Montaperti against Florence on 1260. It says that during the clash, the Sieneses would have eaten the energetic panpepato, while Florentines had only low calories food. Thanks to the meal, the Sieneses got the stamina to win an historical and glorious battle against the bigger Florentines army.
The modern version of Panpepato is the Panforte and its origins date back to the 1700. It is a more delicate cake with candied fruits and with no pepper anymore. They looked so similar that, often, people though they were the same cake. The classic version of the white Panforte hail from 1887 when the Queen Margherita and the King Umberto di Savoia visited the city of Siena. The Master of the Revels at that time changed the classic ingredients adding clearer candied fruits and covering the surface with powdered sugar. In honour of the Queen, the panforte was called “Margherita” and it is still the most traditional and known version.
Torta di Cecco
Torta di Cecco – Photo Credits: Fugzu
The “Torta di Cecco” is a special Christmas cake, often confused with the Panforte because of the presence of similar ingredients as candied fruits and dried fruits. Moreover, a more delicate and scented dough and a chocolate covering, make the cake a real deliciousness to taste, and to give as Christmas gift.
Origins date back to the Middle Age. The name of the “torta” derives from the nickname of Francesco, Cecco, that is typical of the city of Siena.
Befanini – Photo Credits: Kinzica Sorrenti SMT Tuscany
Befanini are simple and tasty cookies are made to celebrate the last day of Christmas holidays the 6 January. They are aromatized with rum and orange peels. Once baked, sugar pearls decorate the surface. They usually have the shape of Christmas decorations or the outline of the Befana, the old ugly but good witch on her broomstick. And this is the reason why they are called Befanini.
In our traditions, Befana arrives the eve of the 6 January and she brings sweets to the good children and coal to the bad ones. The saying goes “L’epifania tutte le feste si porta via”, which means that the good witch takes all holidays away.
Befanini come from Lucca and from Versilia, the coastal area in northern Tuscany. Each family used to make them and exchange them with the other families, together with the mold used to give the desired shape.
In my family, at the end of the Christmas lunch, we use to serve other delicacies together with the classic Tuscan Christmas cakes. Trays full of fabulous brittle made with different dried fruits, homemade waffle, Cantuccini biscuits and finally the “sweet peaches”, an extraordinary pink colour candy that looks like a peach, but is soaked in Alchermes red liquor, stuffed with chocolate (or custard) and covered with sugar. Yummy. 🙂
Did I tickle your appetite? Which is your favourite? Let us know so we could share the traditional recipe with you.