Italian Christmas cakes: the 6 most famous ones

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Last Updated on November 29, 2023 by Laura Teso

As the festive season fills the air with its enchanting aroma, Italy unveils its culinary traditions. Among them, the Italian Christmas cakes, each with its unique story and captivating flavor. 

Italian Christmas cakes and sweets

Panettone

Panettone is a typical Italian Christmas cake of the city of Milan. It is a sweet leavened bread enriched with candied fruits and raisins. Over time, pastry chefs have created dozens of variations to satisfy every palate (without raisins, without candied fruits, without both, filled with custard, with chocolate chips, or pistachio spread and so on). But also to accommodate those with particular dietary needs (lactose free or gluten free). Anyhow, panettone is an undisputed symbol of Italian Christmas. And the Milanese one has also a registered trademark certifying its artisanal production.

Legends about the creation of Panettone

Panettone has a mysterious origin, dating back to the end of the 1400s when Milan was under the rule of Ludovico il Moro. According to some, the inventor was a certain Ugo, an apprentice in the workshop of the pastry chef Toni. One night the boy added a lot of extra butter to the dough, as well as candied fruit and sugar. He probably wanted to make a more tasty panettone. He nailed it. And so the “pan de Toni” (bread of Toni) soon became the city’s favorite. The boy, who became rich thanks to his invention, was therefore able to marry the baker’s daughter, whom he secretly loved. 

Another legend links the panettone to the court of Ludovico il Moro. For the Duke’s Christmas banquet, the palace chef decided to prepare a secret family recipe. But that very evening, due to a distraction, he burned the dessert. Fortunately he had kept aside a little bit of dough. He added eggs, raisins, candied fruit and sugar to it and created the panettone. Well, it was a huge success!

Panettone on February 3rd

According to a Milanese tradition, you should keep leftover panettone after Christmas lunch and then eat it on an empty stomach on 3 February, the day of the feast of San Biagio. They say it’s a remedy for respiratory diseases. It could be, but in exchange it may give you a stomach ache, IMHO. 

Panettone, Italian Christmas cakes
Panettone

Italian Christmas cakes: Pandoro

Pandoro literally means golden bread. It’s a soft and buttery cake invented in Verona. By tradition it has no fillings. But there are tons of variations.

When was pandoro born? We have a certain date, 14 October 1884, the day in which the pastry chef Domenico Melegatti from Verona officially registered the patent. It seems that he took inspiration from a traditional Veronese dessert called Levà, to which he had added butter. The star shape was created by a painter from Verona, Angelo Dall’Oca Bianca. While the name is due to a boy from Melegatti who, upon seeing it, exclaimed that it looked like golden bread.

Italian Christmas cakes

Torrone and mandorlato

Torrone and mandorlato are both similar to nougat. They include more or less the same ingredients: egg whites, sugar, honey. And nuts. So what is the difference between them? 

Torrone typically features a wider variety of nuts, including almonds, hazelnuts, pistachios, and even peanuts. Torrone can be either soft or hard, depending on the cooking time and the proportion of ingredients. Soft torrone has a chewy, nougat-like texture, while hard torrone is more brittle and crumbly. Torrone can also be flavored with chocolate or other stuff.

Mandorlato, on the other hand, is features only almonds and showcases the pure flavor of these nuts. Mandorlato is generally harder than torrone, with a dense, crystallized texture that shatters when bitten.

Below, the white one is mandorlato, the brown one is a type of torrone.

Panforte di Siena

Typical of the city of Siena in Tuscany, Panforte is a Christmas dessert dating back to the year 1000. At that time it had a different name though. Christmas Bread or Aromatic Bread or Pan Pepatus. The current name means strong bread.

It is a chewy low fruit cake featuring a blend of candied fruits, nuts, and spices. Dried figs, almonds, hazelnuts, and walnuts lend their rich, nutty notes, while aromatic cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg infuse the cake with warmth and complexity. 

The panforte as we know it, white panforte, dates back to 1879, in honor of a visit of Queen Margherita, who got to Siena for the Palio. For this occasion, the chef avoided the black pepper. He put vanilla sugar instead, to create a more delicate version.  

Legends about panforte

There are 3 legends about panforte and all three feature a nun. 

  1. Sister Ginevra was in a convent sufefring for an impossible love. One day she was preparing a sweet bread, when she heard the voice of her beloved, Messer Giannetto da Perugia, presumed dead during the Crusades . Out of emotion she poured an uncontrolled dose of pepper and spices transforming the dessert into the version we currently know.
  2. Sister Berta created this highly energetic dessert to rehabilitate the Sienese weakened by the siege of the city.
  3. In the monastery of Montecellesi, Sister Leta found all the spices mixed up in the kitchen and decided to prepare a cake mixing them all. When a black cat appeared, she thought it was a personification of the devil and threw the boiling mixture at it. The Mother Abbess came running. Upon hearing the fact, wanted to taste what was left, appreciating it very much and calling it “Pan pepato”.

Montaperti battle 

Panforte has always been the pride of the Sienese confectionery tradition also because it is linked to a famous victory in 1260. The battle of Montaperti between Siena and Florence. While the Florentines, tired from the long journey, had only meager food, low in calories, the Sienese army was equipped with a large quantity of panforte, easy to transport and very energetic. Some say that the panforte was the secret behind their victory. 

Below the panforte of Pasticceria Nannini in Siena. If you’re familiar with Italian singers, the pastry shop belongs to the family of singer Gianna Nannini.

Panforte Nannini

Tronchetto di Natale piemontese

The tronchetto di Natale is a traditional Christmas cake from the Piedmont region of Italy, where it is considered a luck bringer. It is an elaborate dessert based on sponge cake filled with a chocolate ganache. It is then rolled up and covered in a chocolate frosting. The cake is often decorated to make it look like a tree trunk

Its name clearly evokes an ancient custom widespread throughout Europe. On Christmas night each family lit a large log which would bring good luck and wealth. Furthermore, the fire had other symbolic meanings such as illuminating the path of the holy family or warming the clothes of Baby Jesus.

The Yule log tradition may have reached Piedmont from France, where a basically identical cake, called Buche de Noel, is very popular.

Tronchetto di Natale

Well, what is your favorite among Italian Christmas cakes?

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