Our Italiaoutdoors cycling and hiking tours bring us to many regions in Italy, each with its own unique culinary and holiday traditions. Here are a few Christmas cookie recipes I’ve developed over the years to recapture the flavors of my Italy adventures during the holiday season.
Our culinary bike trips include cooking classes where we have made the classic Italian layered dessert, Tiramisu. Tiramisu is of relatively recent origin. There are various stories; some claim it originated at the restaurant Le Beccherie in Treviso, and was named after the maiden name of a daughter-in-law of a famous confectioner. Other stories place its origin in Siena, where it was created to celebrate the visit of Cosmo III. One anecdote places its origin at a brothel, where its purpose was to provide a bit of a boost to weary clientele. This may be more legend than fact, but it is certainly the most memorable.
I thought it would be interesting to apply the wonderful flavors found in tiramisu – espresso, coffee liquor, marsala, chocolate, ladyfingers, and mascarpone – to a Brandy Ball type cookie. Coffee, sugar, booze, and chocolate. Not much to go wrong there. I replaced the ground cookies in Brandy Balls with crushed savoiardi (ladyfingers); the brandy with a mix of kahlua, marsala and espresso; dusted with cocoa and sugar; and included hazelnuts as the nut.
Another version of this old favorite, Brandy or Rum Balls, inspired by the flavors of Italy, made from ground amaretti cookies and flavored with grappa. Amaretti cookies are traditional to Saronno, in Lombardia. Legend has it that in the early 18th century, a Milanese cardinal visited the town. A young couple created this original dessert for him, cookies made of egg whites, sugar and crushed almonds and apricot kernals. The cardinal was so pleased with the treat he blessed the couple with a long and happy marriage.
Chestnuts are found throughout Italy, and have been a staple of their cuisine for thousands of years. During our fall Bike the Wine Roads of Trentino-Alto Adige bike tours, chestnuts are just coming into season. We enjoy chestnuts in pasta, in risotto, in soups and desserts. In fancy ristorante, local trattorie, and sweet chocolate and chestnut treats from a roadside table we passed on a bike ride. During the holidays, when I can find chestnuts here at home, I’ve been looking forward to trying a few of these recipes. A chocolate chestnut holiday biscotti brings me back to my cycling excursion and the homemade chestnut cookie that powered me through the last few miles.
Decorating with sweets has been a part of Italian cuisine since the 16th century. Even before this time, the shapes of breads and all the many shapes and sizes of pastas were not just random, but often created to replicate something – be it the rounded shape of panettone in honor of the church domes of Lombardy, to the scroll shaped X of the Coppia Ferrarese breads, alluding to the adventures of the Duke of Ferrara, to the cappellacci pasta, named for their resemblance to straw hats worn at the time.