The Christmas season wouldn’t be so festive or so sweet without the delicious cookies, cakes and candies that we all love to snack on at this time of year. I confess that for eleven months out of the year I am not a baker, but something about the month of December makes me want to don an apron and bake up a storm…and with all the flour flying around, there might as well be a blizzard in my kitchen, and you can practically skate to the oven on a white drift of sugar!
I turn up the holiday tunes, roll up my sleeves and unleash my inner baker. I make my grandmother’s sugar cookies with red & green sprinkles, my mother’s molasses & double chocolate delights and of course my aunt’s famous recipe for cranberry bread. During the holidays you can find me in the kitchen mixing, stirring and yes, sometimes despite best intentions, even burning trays of cookies. My dad always said we girls couldn’t make cookies without ruining at least a few, but those that turned out, were absolutely delicious! In my opinion however, I could never make my mother’s sugar cookies as well as she or my grandmother used to make.
Recently I have added to my repertoire of holiday baked goods some traditional Italian holiday dolci. Now our holiday table wouldn’t be complete without a beautiful golden domed-shaped panettone from Milan, or the Italian Chocolate Salami from Sicily, that resembles something you might find hanging at the butchers shop, but which is really made with rum, dark chocolate and broken cookies. There is also the wonderful pandoro, a yeasty golden cake from Verona, that is shaped like a frustum with an 8 pointed star section. It is often sugary and sweet due to the dusting of vanilla-scented icing, which makes it look like the Italian Alps.
Then of course there is il ceppo di natale, which is a dessert that is made to resemble the traditional spruce log that the Italians typically burn in their fireplace on Christmas Eve to warm the house for the arrival of the baby Gesù. This sweet replica will certainly warm the stomach and put a glow on anyone’s face! In Puglia they celebrate the holidays by making le cartellate, fried sweets that are sprinkled with sugar and chocolate, and in Sicilia they prepare croccante alle mandorle, a brittle made with almonds as well as the “torrone con le mandorle” that is a chewy candy nugget, typically made with honey, sugar, egg white and toasted almonds.
I asked my friend Maria Louisa Manca, who is a very good cook from Catania (a beautiful city situated on the slope of Mount Etna) to share with me some of her favorite holiday memories. She told me that in her family preparations for the big holiday meals begin weeks in advance and the whole family gets involved thinking about which dishes and sweets to prepare.
Every year she still makes the classic Sicilian torrone con le mandorle but has never yet quite been able to make one as fine as her mother used to make. I guess it is always a challenge, no matter where you live to compete with your own mother’s cooking! Closing her eyes, Maria Louisa can still vividly recall what a wonderful place her mother’s kitchen was during the holidays, as it was always filled with holiday music and wonderful mouth watering smells that would waft from the oven and the stove to fill the entire house.
She also remembers how her father used to hide special chocolates on the Christmas tree by tying them to the branches with little red bows for the children to find on Christmas Day. It is a tradition that she continues with her children despite living in California, miles away from Sicily and Italy.
Here is Maria Louisa’s classic recipe for Croccante alle Mandorle Siciliano:
Ingredients: (for 7/8 servings)
500 gr almonds, lightly toasted
6 tablespoons of sugar
4 tablespoons of honey
1 pinch of cinnamon
1 pinch of grated orange peel
In a pan, over low heat, melt the sugar and the honey. Add the almonds and the cinnamon. Stir until the mixture thickens, taking care not to burn the almonds, approximately 5 minutes. Toward the end, add the grated orange peel. Turn the contents of the pan onto an oiled marble surface. With a wooden spoon spread the mixture into a compact rectangular shape, about 1 or 2 centimeters thick. When it is cool, with a sturdy knife, cut into smaller pieces and serve
There is something very magical about the holidays that draws us all together… and yes even into the kitchen to prepare our favorite dolci! It is the nostalgia for the times we spend together, past and present, that make our holiday traditions and foods so special…and so sweet!
— Melissa Muldoon
Melissa Muldoon writes the Italian language blog Diario di una Studentessa Matta. She studied painting and art history in Florence and is a graphic designer/illustrator in in the San Francisco Bay area.