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Buon Natale! Christmas in Italy
Part 4: Traditional Italian Recipes for the Holidays
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For many Italians and those of Italian descent, the delight of gathering around a bountiful, beautifully laid table, the thrill of indulging in unforgettable regional dishes, and the convivial holiday atmosphere are enough to inspire the greatest of culinary feats. During the Christmas holidays fanciful specialties claim a place of honor at the table. These are traditional dishes that add a festive note to seasonal menus.

Typical Italian Christmas dishes include baccalà (salted dried cod fish), vermicelli, baked pasta, capon and turkey. Traditional Christmas Eve Dinner, which includes seven types of fish (or nine, eleven, or thirteen, depending on the town of origin), is known as La Vigilia Napoletana in southern towns and includes drowned broccoli rabe (also known as Christmas Broccoli), roasted or fried eel, and caponata di pesce (fish salad) to complete the main course.

Traditional sweets (i dolci) are also important items for the Menù di Natale (Christmas menu) in Italy. Many of them originated in convents, where the nuns made special types of sweets to mark major religious holidays such as Christmas, presenting them as gifts to eminent prelates and to the noble families from which their mothers superior came. Every convent made a particular kind of sweet. These desserts include: struffoli (Neapolitan honey pastry); cenci (fried pastry ribbons sprinkled with powered sugar); dried figs, candied almonds, chestnuts, and marzipan fruits and vegetables.

Not to be missed are the sweet breads: panforte (a specialty of Siena), pandolce (a specialty of Genoa), and panettone. A traditional Milanese Christmas bread, the legend goes that panettone originated in the sixteenth century, when a baker named Antonio fell in love with a princess and baked a golden, buttery egg bread to win her heart. Over the years the name of the bread evolved into panettone (from pane, for "bread"), and in the nineteenth century, with the unification of Italy, the bread was embellished with candied red cherries and green citron as a patriotic gesture.

New Year's Day and the Feast of the Epiphany
Italians are renowned for their culinary traditions, and so Christmas Eve and Christmas are not the only times during the winter holiday that special meals are served. On New Year's Eve there is the feast of San Silvestro, and to complete the culinary largesse is La Befana Dinner, or Feast of the Epiphany.

And what could be more appropriate than a glass of sparkling Prosecco to ring in the New Year? Produced in the Veneto region, the superb dessert wine is perfect for the holidays and other celebrations.

Traditional Italian Christmas Recipes
Here are three recipes for traditional food served during the Christmas season:

Cicerata
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Honey-soaked cicerata, so named because the bits of dough are shaped to resemble chickpeas (ceci in Italian), is a sweet dessert that's served during the Christmas holidays.

6 egg whites
5¾ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
12 egg yolks
¼ teaspoon salt
2¾ cups extra-virgin olive oil
¾ cup anise liqueur
¼ cup sugar
1 cup slivered almonds, toasted
1 cup finely diced candied fruit
juice of 8 oranges
3 cups honey
zest of 4 oranges, julienned
¼ cup colored sprinkles

Make the dough: Whip the egg whites until soft peaks hold. Place the flour in the bowl of an electric mixer; work in the egg yolks, salt, ¾ cup of the olive oil, anise liqueur, and sugar. Gently fold in the egg whites with a wooden spoon; the dough should be soft and elastic. If it is too dry, add more liqueur; if it is too wet, add more flour.

Snip into chickpea-sized pieces and roll into tiny spheres. Heat the remaining olive oil until it registers 325 degrees on a thermometer; fry the bits of dough until golden. Remove with a slotted spoon and blot dry on paper towels; arrange on 8 plates, and top with the slivered almonds and candied fruit.

Heat the orange juice in a saucepan; stir in the honey and heat through. Fold in the julienned orange zest. Pour the sauce over each portion, dust with the colored sprinkles, and cool to room temperature before serving.
SERVES 8

New Year's LentilsLenticchie Stufate di Capodanno
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Lentils are traditionally eaten on New Year's Day in Italy as a symbol of good luck and prosperity; their round shape, reminiscent of coins, is supposed to ensure riches for the coming year. The accompaniment of choice for lentils is cotechino, a mild-tasting, slow-cooked pork sausage.

½ pound lentils
2 rosemary sprigs
2 garlic cloves, peeled
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup vegetable broth, plus extra if needed
salt and pepper
1 tablespoon tomato paste

Soak the lentils for 1 hour in cold water to cover. Drain; place in a 2-quart pot and cover with cool water, then add 1 sprig of rosemary together with 1 clove of garlic. Bring to a gentle boil, and simmer for 15 minutes. Drain, discarding the rosemary and garlic clove. Mince the remaining garlic. Heat the olive oil in the same pot; add the remaining rosemary and garlic; cool until aromatic, about 1 minute over low heat. Add the lentils, broth, salt, pepper, and tomato paste. Stir well.

Cook until the lentils are tender and most of the liquid has been absorbed, about 20 minutes, adding a little more broth if needed. Adjust the seasoning and serve hot.
SERVES 6

Biscotti
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These twice-baked (biscottare means to bake twice) biscuits are terrific dunked in Vin Santo, Tuscany's traditional sweet wine.

3 eggs
1 cup sugar
¾ cup vegetable oil
2 teaspoons anise seed
3 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup chopped almonds or walnuts

Beat eggs until thick and lemon-colored. Gradually add sugar and beat. Add vegetable oil. Lightly crush anise seed with mortar and pestle. Add to egg mixture.

Sift together flour, baking soda and salt. Gradually add to egg mixture. Beat until smooth. Add almonds or walnuts.

Turn out onto lightly floured board and shape into flat loaves about ¼-inch thick and 2½ inches wide, the length of the baking sheet. Place on greased baking sheets, bake at 375 degrees for 20 minutes.

Remove from oven; cool 2 minutes and slice into ¾-inch pieces. Lay pieces cut sides down on baking sheets. Bake again at 375 degrees for 10 minutes or just until golden brown. Remove to wire racks to cool.
MAKES 4 DOZEN

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