The list of Christmas desserts can seem endless, but in addition to Marion’s Twelve Days of Christmas Cookies, we wanted to present some additional favorites for this joyous season since a Christmas Day feast would not be complete without an array of festive treats. Below are four recipes from different regions ranging from Sicily in the south to Tuscany in the north/central part of the country.
Cassata – from Sicily
Butter, for greasing pan
1 cup plus 2 tbsp flour, sifted, plus more for pan
2/3 cup plus 3/4 cup sugar
1 tsp orange zest
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
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 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
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease and flour a 9″ cake pan; set aside. Combine 2/3 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 the flour and fold to combine. Pour into cake pan and smooth the top of the batter. Bake until a toothpick inserted in center of cake comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Transfer the pan to a wire rack and allow the cake to cool completely before removing the cake from the pan. Using a serrated knife, cut cake crosswise into ½″-thick strips; set aside.
Line the bottom and sides of a 12″ metal pie plate with plastic wrap; set aside. Put pistachios in a food processor and pulse 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 the dough to a work surface dusted with confectioners’ sugar and knead until smooth. Using a rolling pin, roll the marzipan until 1/4″ 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 1/4 cup sugar and 1/4 cup water in a saucepan over a medium-high flame. Cook until the sugar dissolves, then stir in the 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 the bottom of prepared pie plate with cake strips, cutting to fit and then sprinkle with 5 tablespoons of the Grand Marnier syrup. Place the ricotta mixture on top of cake and spread evenly to fill pie plate, smoothing the top. Cover top of ricotta mixture with remaining cake slices, cutting to fit evenly and drizzle with remaining syrup. Trim the excess pistachio marzipan and then wrap the pie plate in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 hours until chilled. 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.
Struffoli – from Campania
Orange-blossom water adds a citrus perfume to this dough. Look for it in specialty food stores or order it online.
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for cutting board and surface
3/4 cup plus 3 tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
2 sticks unsalted butter, melted
2 tsp orange-blossom water
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 tsp pure anise extract
1 large egg, lightly beaten
3 tbsp ice water, plus 3 tablespoons water
4 cups safflower oil
1-1/2 cups honey
1/2 cup whole almonds, chopped
Colored nonpareils, for sprinkling
Combine the flour, 3/4 cup sugar, salt and baking powder in a large bowl. Mix together the butter, orange-blossom water, vanilla, anise extracts and egg in another bowl. Pour into flour mixture. Mix well, adding ice water 1 tablespoon at a time, until dough is stiff but not crumbly.
Roll out dough to 3/8-inch thickness on a lightly floured cutting board. Cut dough into 3/8-inch-wide strips, then cut crosswise into 3/8-inch squares. Roll each piece into a ball, transferring to a lightly floured surface as you work.
Heat 2 inches of oil in a medium heavy saucepan until a deep-fry thermometer registers 375°F. Working in batches, fry dough, stirring, until golden. Remove fried dough from oil using a wire-mesh skimmer and transfer to paper towels to drain.
Heat the honey, remaining 3 tablespoons sugar and 3 tablespoons water in a small saucepan until the sugar dissolves. Working in batches, dip the struffoli in honey sauce until well coated and transfer to a sieve set over a bowl to drain; reserve the honey sauce. Arrange the struffoli on a platter (try making a wreath); pour remaining and reserved honey sauce over top and sprinkle with almonds and nonpareils.
Parrozzo – from Abruzzo
For the cake
1 cup sliced almonds
1 cup “00” flour or cake flour
1/4 cup semolina
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
6 tbsp unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
1 tsp almond extract
finely grated zest of one orange
For the glaze
8 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
2 tbsp unsalted butter
1 tbsp Amaretto liqueur
To make the cake – Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter a 9-inch ovenproof bowl or spring form pan.
In a food processor with a metal blade, grind the almonds to a fine powder. Transfer the ground almonds to a bowl. Add the flour, semolina, baking powder and salt, then stir to combine. Set aside.
With an electric mixer, beat together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, scraping down the sides after each addition. Beat in the extract and orange zest. Add the flour mixture; beat until the batter is thick and well combined. Pour the batter into the prepared pan, smoothing the top.
Bake for 45-50 minutes or until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool the cake in the bowl or pan on a rack for 15 minutes. Invert onto a wire rack; remove the bowl and cool completely.
To make the glaze: Melt the chocolate over a double boiler, then whisk in the butter and Amaretto. Pour the glaze over the top of the cooled cake. With a spatula, spread the glaze evenly over the cake. Transfer the cake to a serving plate or cake stand. Keep the cake at a cool room temperature or refrigerate. If refrigerated, bring to room temperature before serving.
Panforte di Siena – from Tuscany
1/2 lb figs or pitted dates
2 oz honey
1/2 cup soft brown sugar
1/2 tsp each of ground cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, nutmeg and black pepper
1/2 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
1/4 cup Vin Santo dessert wine
confectioner sugar to dust
Heat oven to 300°F. Line a shallow 10” round cake tin or an 8” 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. 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 confectioners’ sugar. Cut into thin wedges and serve.