A couple of posts on creative use for panettone by Marie of Proud Italian Cook and Lori Lynn of Taste With the Eyes have given me the idea for a quick note about Italian sweets traditionally associated with the Holidays. Exhaustiveness is out of the question, as every region has its own traditions and a lot of them are unknown to me. I will therefore talk only about the dolci my family and I enjoyed this time of the year, when I still lived in Italy.
Panettone and pandoro have attained national status as dolci delle feste. I spent my childhood and adolescence alternating between the two as my favorite. However, for several years now, I have been solidly in the panettone camp (though I understand people who think differently). The final choice may have something to do with the fact that I lived for 10 years in Milan, panettone's birth place. In December, pasticcerie (pastry shops) in Milan show their freshly-baked panettoni and oh my! it is difficult to resist.
Both panettone and pandoro are of soft, delicate texture. Panettone is studded with uvetta (raisins) and canditi (candied orange and citron peel), while pandoro is plain inside. At home, we used to put the pandoro on the termosifone (radiator) to warm it up slightly, before sprinkling zucchero vanigliato (powdered vanilla sugar) on top. The names panettone and pandoro contain the word pane (bread), suggesting that they are special breads, made for particular occasions.
My father's favorite Holiday sweet is torrone. There are several versions of this nougat that belongs to a very old tradition. My preference goes to torrone ricoperto di cioccolato, hard torrone covered with dark chocolate. The tower in the photo is the Torrazzo of Cremona, called torrione in Medieval time, from which torrone got its name. We paid a brief visit to the beautiful city during our recent visit to Italy.
Another special bread is panforte (literally, strong bread). In the pasticcerie in Siena, panforte is made in large wheels and you ask for a slice. I like that better than the smaller size, thinner panforte (about 1/2"-thick and 9" in diameter) more commonly available in the stores. There are different kinds of panforte and my favorite is the chocolate one. The final item on my father's shopping list (he was the one entrusted with this part of the Holiday shopping) was pinoccate, a tradition of Perugia, my home town.
After Epifania (Epiphany, popularly called la Befana, celebrated on January 6), it is common to find panettone and pandoro sold at half price. A not so fresh panettone is still a great ingredient for, among other dishes, a variant of zuppa inglese. My favorite way of enjoying panettone is plain and simple: a thick slice, in which to sink teeth and nose, accompanied by a mug of hot caffelatte. Many an evening I made that to be my dinner, a sweet meal conducive to sweet dreams.
Happy New Year