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Marion’s Must-Haves: Best Italian Desserts for Christmas

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Below are four Italian recipes that are must-haves on every Italian Christmas dessert table. Cassata, an elaborate marzipan-ringed ricotta cake is a traditional Sicilian Christmas dessert. Struffoli is a Neapolitan recipe of deep fried balls of dough that are crunchy on the outside and light inside and mixed with honey and other sweet ingredients. There are many different ways to dress them, but the traditional way is to mix them in honey with diavulilli (sprinkles), cinnamon, and bits of orange rind. In Calabria they are known as scalilli.

Enjoy these sweets with your family and friends for an authentic Italian Christmas celebration with a cold glass of Prosecco!

Delicious fig cookies are a recipe handed down to me by a neighbor who taught me to bake when I was 16 years old. Her name was Rose Rosania and she inspired me to bake. My beautiful mother Josie taught me how to cook. Never knew I would love to do both!

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1) Cassata

Ingredients

  • Butter, for greasing pan
  • 1 cup plus 2 tbsp. flour, sifted, plus more for pan
  • ⅔ cup plus ¾ cup sugar
  • 1 tsp. orange zest
  • 6 eggs
  • 1 cup shelled pistachios
  • 3 cups confectioners’ sugar
  • 1 egg white, lightly beaten
  • 2 tbsp. Grand Marnier liqueur
  • 1 lb. ricotta, drained overnight in a cheesecloth-lined strainer, or ricotta impastata
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • ½ tsp. ground cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp. sea salt
  • 2 tbsp. plus 2 tsp. fresh lemon juice
  • Whole candied fruits, such as oranges, apricots, and cherries, halved
  • Candied citron, cut in strips

Preparation

Heat oven to 350°. Grease and flour a 9″ cake pan; set aside. Combine ⅔ cup sugar, zest, and eggs in a large bowl and beat on high speed of a mixer until pale and light, about 5 minutes. Add flour and fold to combine. Pour into cake pan and smooth top. Bake until a toothpick inserted in center of cake comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Transfer pan to a wire rack, let cake cool completely, and remove cake from pan. Using a serrated knife, cut cake crosswise into ½″-thick strips; set aside.

Line bottom and sides of a 12″ metal pie plate with plastic wrap; set aside. Process pistachios in a food processor until finely chopped. Add 1 cup confectioners’ sugar and process until finely ground. With processor running, slowly add enough egg white to form a smooth dough. Transfer dough to a work surface dusted with confectioners’ sugar and knead until smooth. Using a rolling pin, roll marzipan until ¼″ thick. Cut into 2″-wide strips and line side of pie plate with strips, flattening where they overlap to form one continuous ring; set aside.

Heat ¼ cup sugar and ¼ cup water in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Cook until sugar dissolves, then stir in Grand Marnier; set aside. In a large bowl, whisk together remaining sugar, ricotta, vanilla, and cinnamon until smooth, 2–3 minutes; set aside.

To assemble, line bottom of prepared pie plate with cake strips, cutting to fit, and then sprinkle with 5 tbsp. Grand Marnier syrup; place ricotta mixture on top of cake and spread evenly to fill pie plate, smoothing top. Cover top of ricotta mixture with remaining cake slices, cutting to fit evenly, and drizzle with remaining syrup; trim excess pistachio marzipan and then wrap pie plate in plastic wrap and refrigerate until chilled, 2 hours. Meanwhile, combine remaining confectioners’ sugar and lemon juice in a medium bowl to make a thick glaze. Invert pie plate onto a serving dish and peel off plastic wrap. Pour glaze over cake to cover evenly. Decorate with candied fruits. Refrigerate cake until set, 2 hours or overnight.

2) Struffoli

Ingredients

Dough:

  • 2 cups flour, plus extra for dusting
  • 1 large lemon, zested (about 2 teaspoons)
  • 1/2 large orange, zested (about 2 teaspoons)
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 stick unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-in pieces, at room temperature
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 tablespoon Pinot Grigio
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • Canola oil, for frying
  • 1 cup honey
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 1/2 cups hazelnuts, toasted
  • Vegetable oil cooking spray
  • Sugar sprinkles, for decoration
  • Powdered sugar, for dusting, optional

Preparation

In the bowl of a food processor, pulse together 2 cups of flour, lemon zest, orange zest, sugar, salt, and baking powder. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture resembles a coarse meal. Add the eggs, wine, and vanilla. Pulse until the mixture forms into a ball. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 min.

Cut the dough into 4 equal-sized pieces. On a lightly floured surface, roll out each piece of dough until 1/4-in thick. Cut each piece of dough into 1/2-in wide strips. Cut each strip of pastry into 1/2-in pieces. Roll each piece of dough into a small ball about the size of a hazelnut. Lightly dredge the dough balls in flour, shaking off any excess. In a large heavy-bottomed saucepan, pour enough oil to fill the pan about a third of the way. Heat over medium heat until a deep-frying thermometer inserted in the oil reaches 375 degrees F. (If you don’t have a thermometer a cube of bread will brown in about 3 min.). In batches, fry the dough until lightly golden, about 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate to drain. (The rested and quartered dough can also be rolled on a floured work surface into 1/2-in thick logs and cut into equal-sized 1/2-in pieces. The dough pieces can then be rolled into small balls and fried as above).

In a large saucepan, combine the honey, sugar, and lemon juice over medium heat. Bring to a boil and cook, stirring occasionally, until the sugar is dissolved, about 3 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat. Add the fried dough and hazelnuts and stir until coated in the honey mixture. Allow the mixture to cool in the pan for 2 min.

Spray the outside of a small, straight-sided water glass with vegetable oil cooking spray and place in the center of a round platter. Using a large spoon or damp hands, arrange the struffoli and hazelnuts around the glass to form a wreath shape. Drizzle any remaining honey mixture over the struffoli. Allow to set for 2 hours. Decorate with sprinkles and dust with powdered sugar, if using. Remove the glass from the center of the platter and serve.

3) Marion’s Fig Cookies

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups dried figs, hard tips discarded
  • 1½ cups dried dates, pitted
  • 3/4 cup whole almonds, toasted and coarsely chopped
  • 3/4 cup whole walnuts, toasted and coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 cup orange marmalade
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 1/4 cup brandy
  • 1 tsp. finely grated fresh orange zest
  • 1 tsp. finely grated fresh lemon zest
  • 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • For Dough:
  • 4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 tbsp. plus 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 2 sticks butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1 tbsp. vanilla
  • 1 egg white beaten with 1 tbsp. water for egg wash
  • Grated chocolate, for decorating

Preparation:

To make the filling, in a food processor, combine the figs, dates and raisins and process to finely chop. Place the mixture in a medium bowl, add remaining filling ingredients and stir to combine. Cover and refrigerate for at least 8 hours.

To make the dough, in a large bowl combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt and whisk to combine. Add the butter and blend with your fingertips until most of mixture resembles coarse meal.

In a medium bowl, beat the egg, milk and vanilla together. Add to the dry mixture and stir to make a rough dough. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth, about 5 minutes. Cut the dough into 4 pieces, cover, and refrigerate for 45 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Lightly grease 2 large baking sheets.

On a lightly floured surface, one at a time, roll out each piece of dough into a 12-inch square. Cut the dough into 4 by 3-inch rectangles. Spoon 2 tablespoons of filling down the center of each rectangle. Fold the long sides of each rectangle inward to the center to enclose the filling; pinch the edges to seal. Turn the cookies seam-sides down and press gently to flatten the seams. With a floured knife, cut the logs crosswise into 1-1/2-inch-wide slices and arrange 1/2-inch apart on the prepared baking sheets. Brush with egg wash and bake until golden brown, about 20 minutes. While still warm, decorate with grated chocolate.

Transfer to wire racks to cool. Serve at room temperature.

4) PANFORTE DI SIENA

INGREDIENTS:

  • ½ pound figs or pitted dates
  • 2 oz honey
  • ½ cup soft brown sugar
  • ½ tsp each of ground cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, nutmeg and black pepper
  • ½ pound candied fruit, such as cherries, citron, lemon and orange rind
  • 2 oz blanched almonds
  • 2 oz pine nuts
  • 2 oz shelled hazelnuts, toasted
  • 3-4 tbsp plain flour, sifted
  • ¼ cup Vin Santo dessert wine
  • Confectioner sugar to dust

PREPARATION:

Heat the oven to 300 degrees. Line a shallow 10 inch round cake tin, or a 8 inch square tin, with rice paper.

Mince the figs or dates and put them in a pan with just enough water to cover. Add the honey, brown sugar and all the spices. Cook gently for about 10 minutes, then pour into a bowl. The mixture should be soft and sticky, but not wet.

Add the candied fruit and nuts and mix well, then add the flour and Vin Santo and mix to a sticky texture. Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin and bake in the oven for 30-40 minutes.

Take out of the oven and leave in the tin to cool. Sprinkle generously with confectioner sugar. Cut into thin wedges and serve.

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