It’s Christmastime and that means I’m back with another dispatch from my very particular corner of Christmas celebration. Last year, I brought you a hard-hitting power ranking of all the Italian Christmas cookies that are extremely popular whether you’re Italian, Italian-American, or not. But even though the Italian Christmas cookies are probably the dessert we’re most well-known for at this time of year, the treat train doesn’t stop there.
I don’t think it’s any secret that Italians and Italian-Americans love to eat. I know I’m not supposed to encourage a stereotype but this one is simply true across the board. Every holiday — seriously, every holiday, from the major Catholic/Christian ones like Christmas and Easter to the more minor saints’ days to Carnevale — is accompanied by some traditional meal or dish or sweet confection of some kind. Given that Christmas is, by far, the biggest holiday in the Gregorian and Catholic/Christian calendar, you can imagine what our Christmas meals look like. It occurred to me this year that while many people know about the tradition of sharing cookies with loved ones and acquaintances, not many people know there are lots of other sweet indulgences on the Italian and Italian-American Christmas table.
Being that dessert is usually the most important part of the holidays for me, I spend a lot of the year dreaming of and waiting for the opportunity to get into some of this stuff. I will say, though, not every one of them is created equal. Like Italian Christmas cookies, there are some that will blow you away and some that are good but not much to write home about.
Below you’ll find my personal rankings for all of the desserts you might see at the Italian market in your city or at the home of your Italian-American friend. Hopefully, it can help guide you to make the most delicious decisions this holiday season.
I know there’s technically no such thing as breakfast dessert, but when I think of Panforte, I don’t necessarily think about the sweet end cap at the end of an intense couple of hours of eating. Panforte, for all intents and purposes, is simply a spicy, chocolate fruit cake with very little flour so the emphasis is on the fruit. It’s delicious, there’s no doubt about that. But since it mostly contains dried figs and nuts, it just doesn’t feel like dessert.
Torrone kind of falls into the same territory as Panforte to me but, in this case, it feels more like a little snack. Torrone is available all year round but since Christmastime has become a never ending parade of giving treats, it’s mostly gifted around this time of year. Torrone is a chewy, sweet, honey/vanilla-y nougat filled with nuts. Usually, it’s made with pistachios which are the most superior nut and the reason it’s ranked above Panforte. You can satisfy your sweet tooth with Torrone but it just doesn’t feel as celebratory as some of the others.
9. Tronchetto di Natale (Italian Yule Log Cake)
I don’t have much to say about this — but at least it actually makes sense as a dessert. Tronchetto di Natale is a Swiss roll cake shaped and decorated like a log you’d find in the middle of a wintry forest. It originated in France but was quickly adopted by almost all of the European countries. And I understand why — it is fun and festive. But I’ll be honest and tell you my family has only had a Tronchetto on our Christmas table twice because it’s just not a big thing. Tronchettos are prepared in the same way all the other ethnic whites do it, using vanilla genoise sponge and chocolate buttercream, with the added bonus of having a little espresso or Italian liqueur (like Amaretto) in there, too. It tastes good, but there’s a limit to how impressed I’ll be by a dessert they make on The Great British Bake Off every season.
8. Frittelle or Zeppole (Italian Doughnuts)
Listen, I’m absolutely not one to disparage fried dough. Fried dough, in any form, is just good. It really is. There’s something about fried dough that just hits every point of comfortability in your body. I know there’s a science behind it, but I honestly don’t care to know because it’ll take away the magic. I realize I’m saying all of this and still ranking this low but that’s just because it lacks imagination. Zeppoles are a yeasted dough fried in oil and then dragged through sugar before they cool. They’re satisfying but they’re just doughnuts.
Pandoro looks like Christmas, doesn’t it? Like what other time of year are you going to eat something that looks like this? And it’s quite good even if it commits the sin of being basic as hell. Pandoro is a sweet bread shaped like an eight-point star sprinkled with a healthy serving of icing sugar. But even though Pandoro seems very simple, it actually has a complicated history. It supposedly took an entire century to perfect the technique for making Pandoro, and they used to be reserved only for the aristocracy and ruling class in Italy. Since it’s no longer reserved for just the rich and ruling class, I kind of feel like eating it is taking part in a tradition of giving the big middle finger to people in power! A cool bonus to eating sugary sweet bread.
Sounds insane that this exists, I know, but it does. It really does. Don’t worry, there is absolutely no meat in here. And honestly? It’s sooo good. It’s just chocolate bursting with cookies, nuts, a little port wine or Amaretto, and fruit covered in icing sugar and wrapped to look like a salami you’d get at the butcher. Chocolate salami can be bought but it’s really one of those things people make at home and give as a gift to their friends and other loved ones. Eating this kind of makes me feel like a joke because of the fact that my ancestors really said “Ok, let’s make a dessert that looks like cured meat,” but, trust me, it’s worth it.
Probably going to get a lot of shit for putting this at the midpoint of the rankings, and I don’t care. The thing about them is that even though they’re popular at this time of year, you can get them anytime. And there are more bad ones out there than good ones. Good cannolis — truly good ones — have the power to turn your entire week around. But bad ones have stale-tasting shells and dull, flavorless Cannoli cream filling. How people can fail so spectacularly at messing up some of the best ingredients in the world, I’ll never understand. So, here’s some advice: inquire about the origin of any cannolis you see floating around this season. If they’re from the grocery store chain in your city, skip them. If someone’s Nonna made them or they got them from the one Italian market in your city, eat as many as you possibly can.
I get it if you’re thinking, “Why the hell is Panettone ranked higher than Cannoli?” Don’t worry, I have a good reason for it. What other time of year do you think it’s appropriate to eat Panettone? I’d argue none. Panettone is a cross between a sweet bread and a cake filled with dried fruits or chocolate chips, and it’s very similar to the Pandoro but, in my opinion, much, much better. Panettone has this special flavor that’s almost alcoholic because of the fermentation and proofing process of the dough that usually takes place over several days. Although I sometimes see these throughout the year, Panettone screams Christmas to me. Once those big yellow box displays start popping up at the grocery store, I know the holiday season has arrived.
Ok, y’all, now we are truly cookin’. I love Italian Cream Cake not only because of the flavor but also because it’s one of those magnificent immigrant concoctions that, strictly speaking, has no business being called Italian. Regardless, it’s still made its way into the hearts and minds — and onto the tables — of people across the country. Supposedly, Italian Cream Cake was created by an Italian baker who moved to the States and ended up in the South. And you can see the Southern influence all over the cake. Italian Cream Cake is basically like what if you replaced all the carrot in a carrot cake with coconut and pecans and then replaced all the spices with almond extract (or a little bit of bourbon if you’re really feeling it) then covered it in an almond extract flavored cream cheese icing. As a Real Italianx-American who was also raised in the South, this one really gets me.
Make no mistake — Tiramisu is a god-tier dessert. The name literally translates to “pick me up,” which makes sense because a well-made tiramisu makes you feel like you’re floating in the clouds. Soft and almost cake-like cookies, mascarpone, espresso, and chocolate? I’m sorry but there just isn’t much competition. It would be number one if the dessert at number one didn’t exist…
A lot of people in my life think I don’t like cheesecake. But if they’d also grown up eating traditional Italian Ricotta Cheesecake, they’d get why I’m not rushing to eat some unfortunate substitute. You’re probably wondering how different it could be from regular cheesecake and trust me when I say, it’s worlds apart. Ricotta Cheesecake is fluffy and subtly sweet. There’s no crust on the bottom which really allows for the sweetened, whipped ricotta cheese and lemon zest to take center stage on your palate. The top of the cheesecake usually has this very thin layer of caramelization that adds a little roasted sweetness to the whole deal. You can technically have Ricotta Cheesecake all year long — and it’s easy to make! — but having it as the final treat of the season after a month of eating heavy sweet breads, chocolate desserts, cookies, and candies is really, really special.