Christmas in Tuscany means a joyful explosion of simple, genuine tastes, with traditional and timeless desserts favored over more elaborate affairs like chocolate cakes or decorated cookies. Sweets here – like the main dishes – are rustic but refined, an expression of the region’s legacy of nobility and farming. Of course, there isn’t a single Tuscan cuisine, but rather a smattering of different traditions and specialties that may vary simply by crossing a river or climbing a hill.
But the arrival of Christmas brings a focus on sweeter things, and Tuscan baked goods have fanciful names that belie their simplicity: cavallucci, ricciarelli, copate, panpepato and panforte. Most of these sweets can trace their origins back to the region surrounding Sienna.
Panforte is perhaps the most famous of the Tuscan sweets: literally translated to “strong bread”, it’s a substantial dessert made from almonds, hazelnuts, candied citron, flour, sugar and honey. As a traditional Christmas dessert, panforte can be traced back to the era of Artusi who mentioned it in his seminal tome, Science in the Kitchen (1891), recommending it as a part of Christmas lunch. Today’s panforte probably derives from the more ancient panpepato (“peppered bread”), which, during Renaissance times, was considered a precious delicacy that provided strength and energy – whether needed for war or more amorous endeavors. The difference between the two sweets is the presence of black pepper in the panpepato, which is sometimes sprinkled on the surface instead of powdered sugar. Legend has it that both variants were conceived by the owner of the Panforti Parenti store in honor of Queen Margaret’s visit. The version with powdered sugar is softer than the other variant, thanks to the addition of marzipan.
Then there are the copate, small sweet “discs” made from hone, hazelnuts and almonds that feature a pearly sheen. They resemble rounded nougat, but with a crunchy filling in between two wafer thin sheets, and have been traced back to even before the 1400s. This recipe, like those of many desserts, tend to originate from religious contexts: the copate are believed to have been created by the nuns of Montecelso in Sienna, who wanted to make a kind of decorative host wafer for Christmas eve.
Ricciarelli, originally known as marzipan sweets, were re-named ricciarelli in the late 16th Century, when white sugar became more common in cooking. These diamond-shaped cookies are made from almonds, sugar and egg whites and were first created in13th Century Tuscan courts. Legend has it that a nobleman from Sienna, Ricciardetto Della Gherardesca brought them back from the Turkish crusades. Soft and nutty, they are usually covered in powdered sugar, although there’s also a darker, chocolate variant.
Along with these sweets of ancient origin, there are dozens are more “domestic” versions that are ubiquitous in Tuscany – and all are intimately tied to the region by their ingredients. To safeguard their future and culinary patrimony, many of these sweets have been assigned the IGP certification (or in English, PGI, meaning Protected Geographical Indication).
Tuscan Christmas sweets, however, don’t seem to be under any threat of disappearing. And many of them are distinguished for another feature: if conserved properly, they can last for several weeks. Which means that, closed in a tin, you can keep you ricciarelli, panforte and copate until the festival of Carnevale. The only ingredient this requires, of course, is willpower.