Italian Food

Italian Traditional Holiday Cakes

italian holiday cakes
Pandoro: Italian Christmas Cake

Il Pandoro di Verona

This is a very traditional cake eaten all over Italy. Tall and fluffy, pandoro needs to rise almost a dozen times, before being baked and covered in sifted powdered sugar. They are sold commercially almost everywhere– especially around the winter holidays: Christmas, New Year’s Eve and the Befana.

We can kindly take you back to the Austrian Asburgico Empire  with the story of pandoro: it would have been the pastry makers of the Royal House of Vienna to prepare l’antenato of pandoro (pan:bread. Oro: gold). They named it “the bread of Vienna,” and it was born as a variant of French brioche dough.

Others argue that pandoro was native to the Republic of Veneto, and more precisely to Venice, and that it had been created much earlier than the 19th century: according to this specific version of the story, the pan de oro had been baked for the first time in the Renaissance, for the wealthy family of the Serenissima. The cake was entirely covered with thin gold leaves, made from gold coins.

Another theory, seemingly more appropriate, is the one wanting pandoro as an evolution of the Veronese nadalin, a traditional, star shaped cake. Nadalin is somehow heavier and more dense in texture, but has similarities in flavor with pandoro.

Pandoro is widely available in stores, but if you are a keen baker, you may like to try to make it yourself. Be aware, though, that you have to follow the recipe scrupulously and be very careful with the raising times of the dough.


  • 650g Flour (23oz)
  • 250g butter (8.82oz)
  • 200g sugar (7.05oz)
  • 8 eggs
  • 30g beer yeast (1.06oz)
  • 1\2 cup of whipping cream (not whipped)
  • lemon rind grated
  • 1 package of powdered vanilla 0.5g (1.76 oz)
  • 50g of powdered sugar


Place in bowl 75g (2.65 oz) of flour with 10g (0.35oz) of sugar and the crumbled yeast, then add one egg yolk and blend into the mix. If the dough is too solid add a little warm water. Combine the ingredients well, and place the bowl in a warm place (18-20°C \ 64°-68°F) to let it rise for about 2 hours.

After the two hours have passed, add 160g (5.64oz) of flour, 25g (0.88oz) of softened butter, 90g (3.17oz) of sugar and 3 more egg yolks to the dough. Blend to perfection and place in a warm place to rise for another 2 hours.

After that, add another 375g of flour, 40g of softened butter, 75g of sugar, 1 whole egg, and 3 yolks. Work the dough again and blend in the ingredients then place to rise again for 2 hours.

Now, put the dough on a counter or flat surface and knead incorporating the 1\2 cup of liquid whipping cream, the grated lemon peel, and a dash of powdered vanilla. Now weigh the dough and calculate for every Kilo-(2.2 lbs) 150g of butter. With the rolling pin, roll out the dough and make a square (not too wide!) and place the right amount of diced out butter in the middle. Fold up the dough and roll out with you rolling pin. Once it is large enough, fold the dough on itself three times, roll out again and fold in three twice more. Once this is done, let the dough rest for 30 minutes.

In the meantime, butter up 2 deep baking pans (without hole in center) and dust with sugar. Place the dough on a flat surface, and work lightly for a few minutes with your hands rolling it and dusting it with flour. Make two balls, and put them in the two prepared baking dishes. The dough should fill half the baking pan. Place them in a warm place to rise or until the dough reaches the level of the baking pan.

When ready, place them in a hot oven 190°C (374°F) for about 40 minutes. After about 20 minutes lower the oven temperature to allow the inside to cook without colorizing the outside too quickly.

As soon as they are cooked, take them out of the oven and place them on paper towels to allow them to cool, dust in powdered sugar!

Il Panettone: Invention of an ex-falconer or a legend?

italian holiday cakes
Panettone: Italian Christmas Cake. Ph. @ MKucova on depositphotos

There are moments that truly changed the history of Italian cuisine. Like the time when Ugo left the house through the window and walked into the stark coldness of a Milanese night. With ease, he jumped over the banister of the balcony and fell into the garden of that residence. The dogs began to bark like mad, but he ran across the yard without a care until he was flattened against a barbed wire fence (muro di cinta). He stopped for a second to catch his breath, broken up over the run and from fear. His eyes searched within the black darkness, towards the mansion, only to see a shimmering light in the window, the light of a candle.

All was tranquil, all was silent. The dogs were  now all in a state of rest; that night, no one saw him escape from the window. Grasping some bricks, Ugo hoisted himself over the wall of the splendid mansion he shared with his father, Giacomo of Atellani, that received as a gift from Ludovico il Moro – from the courts in Milan.

The moon hidden by clouds, Ugo walked, covered by shadow, towards Toni’s shop: he was a breadmaker. Every night he did so, to see his beloved, Adalgisa, the baker’s girl. He was so very fond of her, but his family opposed the liaison. In spite of their mutual affection, things were not to end up well for the couple, as they were soon to find out.

Adalgisa had not been doing well. She felt exhausted, as work had increased after her father’s apprentice became sick and took the decision to stop seeing Ugo: she did not have the time to prepare and bake all the cakes and breads she had to make!

But Ugo knew he could not stay without his beloved so, the following day, he went to the bakery dressed in simple clothes and said he was Ludovico il Moro’s falconer and that he wanted to become the baker’s new apprentice.

From then on, the young boy worked as hard as he could, preparing bread every night and every day, but the bakery business did not get any better: a new shop had opened right next to them, and was stealing away all of Toni’s clients.

Ugo didn’t waste any time, and with that recklessness typical of youths, he stole a splendid pair of Moro falcons and bought butter. That night, while he was mixing up regular ingredients to make a cake, he also added the butter. The morning after, all of Milan was talking about Toni’s amazing new bread: the most delicious of the whole city.

The following day, the shop was overtaken with a rush, and already gave way to gossiping whispers of tall tales about the most delicious bread in Milan! Over the next few days another two falcons were sold to buy more butter and a little sugar to add to the bread dough.

Milan went crazy for “Toni’s Special Bread.” The line outside the shop seemed endless and every night the bakers had to work harder than ever to prepare it. Meanwhile winter began, and business picked up even more.

Ugo and Adalgisa could think again about a future together.

During the Christmas holidays, Ugo added a last magical touch to his creation: he added an egg, tiny pieces of candied citron, and raisins. All of Milan, during the few days before Christmas, was over at the shop to pick up-what everybody was calling Pan Grande or Pan del Toni. From these name came panettone, meaning “big bread” and, from then on, it was on every table during the holidays. Toni became rich, and Ugo’s parents no longer grumbled over Adalgisa. So, as every story goes, the two youngsters got married and lived happily ever after.

This is surely the most notorious legend about the birth of one of Italy’s most iconic cakes, il panettone. But of course, there are other legends, too.

One in particular says that Ludovico Sforza, mentioned in Ugo and Adalgisa’s story already, used to organize a luscious Christmas dinner in his castle in Milan for all of the city’s noblemen. Ludovico’s cook was famous and appreciated. Creative and efficient, he had numerous chefs working under him in the Sforza’s kitchen. Dishes came out of the kitchen and onto the table just at the right moment, with the right amount of time between them, so that Ludovico’s guests had the proper amount of time to truly enjoy each of them. And it was now time for dessert, a dessert which was expected to be outstanding just as the rest: the perfect conclusion to a lavish Christmas dinner. Ludovico’s famous chef overviewed its preparation personally, as the recipe was a family secret, passed on from father to son throughout generations. Everyone was busy, among pots and pans, fires and ovens, to the point that whoever was in charge to take the cake out of the over forgot. Our chef noticed the cake was nowhere to be found and realized with horror it was still in the oven, burnt beyond rescue. With no time left to prepare another cake like that one, the chef realized he was lost: nevermind who forgot to take it out of the oven, he was the one in charge and he was to be the one hanged for such a disastrous mistake. Desperate, he began to cry.

And here enters Toni, a poor kitchen helper, who had kept some of the cake batter for himself and added candied fruits, and egg, sugar and raisins to it. He wanted to bake it for himself after work, he said to the chef, to have something warm to eat, but if his boss wanted, he could bake it now, serve it and save the day.

Having nothing left to lose, the chef accepted.

And it was so that Toni’s, the poor kitchen helper, creation came to the table of the great Ludovico Sforza, count of Milan. And it was a success. Words cannot describe how much this pan del toni was appreciated and how popular it became among the Sforzas and their guests that Christmas, and many Christmas after that. In fact, it became so famous that soon bakery all around Milan began making it and panettone became the most typical of all Christmas cakes all over the city and Italy.

The many flavors of Italian Carnevale

Italians love Carnevale: it is a time of celebration before the beginning of Lent, when they traditionally dwelve into rich, sumptuous food, before the restraints announcing the coming of Easter. Each region has typical recipes, but some specialities are very much common to the whole country: let’s take a look.

Chiacchiere (AKA frappe, bugie, fiocchi, cenci, sfrappe and many, many more….)  

italian holidays cakes
Chiacchiere are loved and consumed all over the country (by clop at

These are probably the best known of all dolci carnevaleschi (that means Carnival desserts!). They are made with a simple dough of butter, sugar, egg and flour (and some vanilla), thinly rolled, usually cut into squares, deep fried and then covered in icing sugar. Delicious hot or cold, they can also be filled with jam (quince and plum are very popular) or chocolate. Their history is, apparently, very long and rooted into ancient Roman cuisine: their ancestors, the frictilia, were parcels of sweet dough fried in animal fat and they were usually prepared by the Romans in the same period of the year as when we, today, celebrate Carnevale. 

Castagnole (AKA zeppole, tortelli milanesi and strufoli)

italian holidays cakes
Castagnole, photographed by Massimo Telò, at

Castagnole are, just as chiacchiere, prepared and consumed everywhere in the country. They are clearly named after their shape and size, which resembles that of chestnuts, castagne in Italian. However, it may come as a surprise to you to know that there is no chestnuts involved in their preparation. Interestingly, there are several recipes to make them, as each region seems to have developed its own variety, but fear not: they do not differ much from one another. Their dough is made with the same ingredients of chiacchiere, with the addition of lemon peel and some mistrà, an aniseed liqueur. They are then made into little balls, fried and sprinkled with sugar. Just as chiacchiere, castagnole, too, can be filled, not with jam, but rather with crema pasticcera (Italian custard cream) or whipped cream. Their recipe is, very likely, ancient, as it is proven by its presence in a 17th century archive in Viterbo, where four different versions were catalogued.

Ciambelle di Carnevale

These are very much like world’s beloved donuts, the only difference is that, in Italy, they are typically made for Carnevale and they are usually enriched by lemon and orange zest, which make them probably more fragrant than your average donut. The other ingredients are simple: eggs, butter, flour, sugar, yeast. They are fried and then, once again, covered in icing sugar.

Frittelle di Carnevale

These are particularly popular in the north-west of Italy: their dough is made with flour, milk, a little sugar and chopped apples or raisins, although versions with chocolate or without anything at all, are also common. Dollops of this runny batter are dropped into piping hot oil and fried, then covered in sugar (not icing! Castor!). They are delicious hot or cold. A curiosity: in certain areas of the country, like Liguria, savory versions of frittelle are common. The batter is the same, minus the sugar of course, but with a pinch of salt, some chopped parsley and flaked cod added. They are a delicious treat.


italian holidays cakes
Jam-filled krapfen, very similar to donuts (by picswiss at

In truth, krapfen are typical, for Carnevale, only in Trentino Alto-Adige, but they are an overall popular sweet treat in Italy, so I decided to add them in here. Made with flour, butter, eggs, vanilla, yeast and lemon zest, deep fried, filled with jam and sprinkled with sugar, this quintessentially German dessert has many an Italian version (bombolone in Tuscany, graffa in Sicily, where it is filled with sweetened ricotta or chocolate), and is a staple of Italian breakfast menus in hundred of thousand’s cafés around the country. However, it was originally created to celebrate Carnevale in Graz, Austria, and it is still very much associated to it in Veneto and, as we said, Trentino.

Colomba For Easter

italian holidays cakes
The Colomba: the typical cake for Easter Ph. depositphotos/vpard

The colomba is a symbol of Easter, but it is a tradition with a commercial origin. In the early 1900s, the Milanese company Motta decided to make a product similar to panettone, but with a look decidedly connected to Easter. The colomba was born a dessert cake with a similar composition to that of panettone,  enriched with the flavour of amaretto. In 1930, the Motta Company requested an artist specialized in public adverts, and produced the slogan “The Easter colomba by Motta: the cake that tastes of spring.”

In reality, the recipe of colomba has much older roots. Apparently, it was offered to king Alboino of the Lombards, during the second half of the sixth century. The original colomba was a ring shaped sweet yeast bread, made with flour, yeast and eggs, and it was much simpler than the one we eat and enjoy today, which counts, among its ingredients, butter, sugar and candied fruit. Our colomba is today, covered with an almond and dried fruit glaze, which makes it even sweeter. Its shape, that of a dove (colomba), was chosen predominantly in name of the cake ties with Easter, but  also because of dove’s association with the coming of springtime.

Today, the Easter colomba represents a production of excellence in Italian pastry making and it is exported all over the world. Its taste has to be delicate and sweet, its texture soft and fluffy and given by an entire night of rising. The following day, more flour, sugar and eggs are added, along with candied fruit, to the dough, which is then left rising for 4 hours and covered with almond glaze sugar and amaretto. Once baked, colomba has to rest for at least 7 hours before being packed or comsumed.

By Jackelin J.Jarvis

Edited by Francesca Bezzone


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