Have you ever heard about Panforte, Ricciarelli, or Befanini? They are just some of the classic Christmas cakes of Tuscany. Bought at the shop or handmade at home, these sweets can not miss on our tables during the Christmas season.
With Christmas only a few days away, in Tuscany, we are getting ready for the celebration of the biggest festivity of the year. Millions of lights warm up the streets, and Xmas markets animate the squares (not this unlucky 2020 with COVID 19 emergency).
With this post, I would like to tickle your appetite by presenting to you the traditional Christmas cakes of Tuscany. Trust me, every bite is an explosion of taste in your mouth!
The classic Christmas cakes of Tuscany
Cavallucci are of one the cakes of the Christmas Tuscan tradition. They are originating from Siena but widespread all over the region. They have a white color, a quite hard consistency, and a delicious taste of spices and honey. Being handmade, they have a distinctive irregular shape.
The recipe is very easy to make. First, you prepare the caramel with water, sugar, and honey. Then you make the dough by adding yeast, flour, candied fruits, hazelnuts, and honey. You cut the dough into 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. At that time they used to prepare Cavallucci mixing only flour, water, and spices. Later, the taste became more enjoyable with the addition of the other ingredients.
At that time, the guests of roadhouses were the biggest consumers of these biscuits. Those travelers used to ride a horse or horse-drawn carriages as a means of transport. This is probably the reason for the funny name of Cavallucci, literally little horses.
Ricciarelli are soft marzipan biscuits made with almonds, sugar, and egg white. You have to prepare the marzipan dough using the millstone, so before baking in the oven, you have to let it rest for at least two days. Add vanilla and candied fruits to enrich the taste. Cut the dough into diamond-shaped cookies and cover the surface with powdered sugar. Then bake them.
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, coming back home from the Crusades, introduced these cakes to his castle. We usually serve Ricciarelli 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 in 2010.
The Panpepato is the Sienese cake par excellence. It is made of wheat flour, honey, dried figs, jam, spices, pine nuts and is flavored with pepper. The origin of the Panpepato hails from 1000. It was considered a precious cake because was made using expensive and rare ingredients like 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 prepare the dough, receiving a 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 Sienese particularly love it thanks to a legend about the famous battle of Montaperti against Florence in 1260. It says that during the clash, the Sienese would have eaten the energetic panpepato, while Florentines had only low calories food.
Thanks to the meal, the Sienese got the stamina to win a historical and glorious battle against the bigger Florentines army.
The modern version of Panpepato is the Panforte and its origins date back to 1700. It is a more delicate cake with candied fruits and with no pepper anymore. They looked so similar that, often, people thought they were the same cake.
The classic version of the white Panforte hail from 1887 when Queen Margherita and 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 honor of the Queen, the panforte was called “Margherita” and it is still the most traditional and known version.
Torta di Cecco
The Torta di Cecco, literally Cecco’s pie, is a special Christmas cake that we often confuse with the Panforte. They have similar ingredients as candied fruits and dried fruits, but there are a few differences.
A more delicate and scented dough and a chocolate cover, make the cake a real deliciousness to taste, and a perfect Christmas gift. Origins date back to the Middle Age. The name of this torta derives from the nickname of Francesco, Cecco, which is typical of the city of Siena.
Befanini are simple and tasty cookies made to celebrate the last day of the 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 for their name, Befanini.
In our traditions, Befana arrives on 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 biscuits 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.
Here is the recipe to prepare your homade Befanini Cookies.
Other Christmas Cakes of Tuscany
In my family, at the end of the Christmas lunch, we use to serve other delicacies together with the classic Christmas cakes of Tuscany. My aunt serves trays full of fabulous brittle made with different dried fruits, homemade waffle, Cantuccini biscuits, and finally the “sweet peaches”. The sweet peach is a mouthwatering pink color candy that looks like the fruit. She soaks the dough in Alchermes red liquor, stuff with chocolate (or custard), and cover with sugar. Yummy. 🙂
Did I tickle your appetite? Di you find your favorite Tuscan Christmas cake or you want to taste all of them? Let us know so we could share the traditional recipe with you.