Rich with liquor, dense with fruit and nuts, and deepened with the addition of chocolate or cocoa – an Italian Christmas Cake is a sophisticated culinary creation. Naturally, Italians have added a number of gorgeous traditions to their Christmas celebrations, and many of these are worth adopting as our own!
This rich Fruit Cake is closest to our traditional English Christmas cake. It’s soaked in liquor, just like ours, and filled with candied peel and raisins, just like ours. So what makes Certosino different?
The Italian Christmas cake is traditionally drier than our moist cake. It typically includes an almost equal proportion of nuts, not just fruit, and the liqueur is usually Marsala – a sweet Italian dessert wine. Finally, unlike our snowy white icing, the topping for Certosino is an easier and more elegant finish, comprising concentric circles of dried fruit and nuts coated in a sticky fruit glaze. Although the cake will keep for ages, the topping will not, so should be added on the day of serving if possible.
If you’d like to try it, both Nigella Lawson and Delia Smith offer very good, tested versions which have been adapted to British tastes. Both have used a source recipe from Anna del Conte, the grande dame of Italian cuisine – look up her book Apples, Amaretto and Artichokes for her traditional version. You can choose to use a recipe that includes Chocolate or scent your cake with fennel and cinnamon.
Panforte, or ‘strong bread’, is one of the Italian Christmas traditions that is sometimes overlooked. Its name disguises the nature of this Christmas ‘cake’, which would be better described as a cross between Biscotti (or rocky road) and British Christmas Cake. Panforte is traditionally made with 17 ingredients. But don’t be dismayed – it’s very easy to make and bake, and it keeps wonderfully for up to 3 months!
The basic ingredients for an 18cm round of Panforte (which will later be cut into thin slices for serving with coffee) are nuts (around 250g total), dried fruit (225g total) and spices, with honey and sugar to sweeten, butter to meld and flour to bring body. The spices can include cinnamon, fennel, cloves, coriander, nutmeg and cocoa – and the choice depends on how you plan to serve the Panforte.
It is served in Italy with fresh Parmesan as an after-dinner course (in which case, you may wish to use fennel for digestion, coriander and cloves), but also as breakfast with a strong espresso (a better case for cocoa)! There are recipes online from authoritive sources including the Independent’s Chocolate Panforte (with pineapple) – if you’d prefer to look it up in a book, Nigella Christmas features a Panforte recipe that can be adapted to suit your own spice and chocolate preferences.
Panettone is the Italian Christmas cake that has, in the words of Anna del Conte, “conquered the world”. She continues to describe her favourite way to eat this Christmas delicacy: “… As a true Milanese, I love my panettone. I like it for breakfast or for tea, or with sweet white wine or vinsanto, but I like it best for dinner with mascarpone.” As you can see, there’s simply no bad way to eat this wonderful Italian bread!
Made with yeasted dough, Panettone could be described as a bread, but it’s eaten more like one of our loaf cakes – toasted with butter or mascarpone, or simply sliced and eaten alongside fresh coffee.
As it is easier to make in large batches, Panettone is not usually homemade – it’s made in Italy by family bakers who have usually been baking Panettone for decades. The fruited dough, enriched with butter and eggs, requires a long rising time and a quick bake in a hot oven. To keep the domed top from collapsing, the loaves are usually speared on metal spikes and cooled upside-down – if you buy a Panettone this year, take a look at the underside to see the markings of an old tradition.