TO ALL THE COOKIES I’ve loved before, that traveled in and out my door during the pandemic (and there have been many): I’m glad they came along, but I’d dedicate a song to baker Rick Easton’s collection of Italian cookies. I keep returning to this assortment of not-very-sweet biscuits from Mr. Easton’s bakery, Bread and Salt, in Jersey City, N.J. Each one is distinguished by a single salient ingredient or two—the bitter almond of the soft amaretti morbidi, the sesame seeds of the crunchy reginelle made with lard “for a little more of that Palermo bakery taste,” the shop’s description reads. So here are some delicious Italian cookies that are perfect for the Christmas holidays.
Crisp cookies made from ground almonds or almond paste; not to be confused with amaretto, the almond-flavored liqueur. Amaretti originated in Venice during the Renaissance. Amaretti — ‘‘little bitter things’ ‘— are made with sugar and egg whites. The cookies can be chewy or crunchy depending on region. Amaretti derives from amaro, which means bitter, so if the amaretti at your local bakery are not made with bitter almonds, they’re not the real thing
Tartufo can mean truffles; here it’s the delicious ice cream dessert, from Calabria, often topped with chocolate and containing cherries and/or nuts. Tre Scalini in Rome claims to have originated tartufo in 1946. Their recipe includes 13 varieties of Swiss chocolate. What would Brian Boitano do when it comes to tartufo?
Maybe no food on this list has quite the global reach as cannoli; you can even find them in Antarctica. Originating in Sicily, cannoli were made for Carnevale season, which occurs immediately before Lent. Cannoli are easy enough to make – the tube-shaped pastry shells are deep-fried and filled with ricotta – but I’ve had plenty of so-so ones. If you find the good stuff, eat it right away; nothing’s worse than cannoli that’s been sitting in the case all day. Cipolli in Collingswood (closed temporarily) made Spoon University’s list of the 24 best cannoli in the U.S.For unrivaled variety, try La Rosa’s in Shrewsbury
Every self-respecting Italian deli carries panettone, the sweet bread loaf from Milan, around Christmas and New Year’s. Called the “Everest of baking’’ for its mountainous size, panettone is studded with raisins and citron or dried fruit. It’s essentially Italian fruitcake, and, unlike its counterpart, eminently edible. Dry panettone is a sure sign cheaper, industrial yeast has been used. Panettone makes for great French toast and bread pudding.
So easy to make, so easy to mess up. A Jersey boardwalk staple — make that a generally mediocre Jersey boardwalk staple — these deep-fried doughnuts hail from Naples. They are also known as St. Joseph’s Day Cakes because they’re made for the Feast of St. Joseph, March 19. Key ingredient: powdered sugar, for that hint of sweetness. The best zeppoles I’ve had in New Jersey are the ones at Bottagra in Hawthorne, served in tiny paper brown bags with chocolate dipping sauce.
The miniature version of cassata, the popular Sicilian ricotta cake, cassatini are eye-catching dessert delights consumed on the go on the streets of Palermo. Yellow layer cake is enlivened with rum flavoring and cannoli filling, wrapped in marzipan and icing and topped with a candied cherry. Add candied peaches and candied fig halves on top for that certain je ne sais quoi.
Sflogliatelle are often confused with lobster tail; the flaky curved pastry itself is identical, but sfogliatelle are filled with ricotta, while lobster tails are filled with French cream. Both can be traced to La Santarosa, a pastry, often served hot, which takes its name from a 16th century convent near Naples. It’s probably the toughest word to pronounce on our list — see the video. My favorite sfogliatelle can be found at Rispoli’s Pastry Shop in Ridgefield.
Tiramisu means “carry (or pick) me up,’’ and some speculate the continuation is “to heaven.’’ Tiramisu is certainly a celestial delight, an airy mix of coffee-soaked ladyfingers or sponge cake, layered with grated chocolate and mascarpone (ladyfingers are not always easy to find, but they’re infinitely better than sponge cake). Tip: Don’t sprinkle on the cocoa until you’re ready to serve; it can soak in otherwise and mar the taste. The Veneto region has long claimed to be its originator, but neighboring Friuli-Venezia Giulia strongly disagrees. The tiramisu at ITA101 in Medford (in photo) is not only delicious; it’s made tableside, which makes for great food theater.
Mini-pastries or pies with a tender crust and rich ricotta or custard filling. The pastry is as much a symbol of the Lecce and Salento region as croissants are to France. They were first made at Pasticceria Ascalone in Galantina in 1745. Try to find a bakery that uses lard instead of butter for the crust; lard makes for a softer, moister crust
Gelato contains less air and fat than traditional ice cream; it’s churned at a slower speed and kept at a warmer temperature, resulting in a denser dessert. Its origin can be traced to the Italian Renaissance and the Medici family, which sponsored a frozen dessert contest. Gelaterias are nowhere as popular as ice cream stores or even fro-yo shops, which is why stumbling upon one is such sweet delight.
These cream or jelly-filled sugar doughnuts with the cheery, childish name can be traced to krapfen, a jelly-filled doughnut thought to have been invented in the Austrian city of Graz in the 1600s. Many recipes call for them to be doused in chocolate. If you make them at home, make double the original number; they’ll go fast. For a really strange food-themed music video, watch Gianna Nannini singing her 1996 hit “Bomboloni.’
Distinguished by its bright yellow color (pan d’oro means golden bread), pandoro, a star-shaped cake dusted with powdered sugar, originated in Verona. Many Italian families split on whether to have pannetone or pandoro for the holidays. Tip: Don’t make it at home. It’s really difficult — you need a special pandoro mold, for starters -— and do you really want to spend five hours making a cake? (we’re not kidding).
“I semi-knew it was you, Fredo.’’ OK, enough with the bad “Godfather II’’ jokes. You’ll break your diet but not your heart with this semi-frozen dessert made with eggs, sugar and cream. It tastes somewhere mousse and ice cream, and you may end up liking it better than both. My opinion of the semifreddo at Paisano’s in Rutherford: I tried it five years ago, and I’m still dreaming about it.
A Sicilian deep-fried pastry filled with custard cream or ricotta, cartocci resemble mini-sugar twist doughnuts. One story described it as the love child of a cannoli and churro. Cartocci are not easy to find at Italian bakeries, at least in Jersey. One good source for Sicilian pastries: Maria’s Bakery in Saddle Brook.https://343e6ade21f76d589b13d296df206efe.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html?n=0
These ring cookies — some compare them to bagels — can be sweet or savory, depending on how they’re made; ingredients can include black pepper, fennel, lemon glaze and sprinkles. They’re a popular snack in Southern Italy, especially Puglia; they’re often offered as bar munchies. They may be the easiest item to make on our list; add white wine to the dough to bring out the inner Italian grandma in you.
Italian waffle cookies made with eggs, flour, sugar, and butter or vegetable oil, and often flavored with vanilla, anise or almond, pizelles were first made in Abruzzo in the 8th century. They are made by pouring batter between two plates of an iron. The proper placement of butter is key; put a heaping amount in the very center of the iron. Two Italian towns claim to have made them first.
“Sweet and gooey’’ best describes these honey-dipped fried dough balls, which get their name because they resemble a big pine nut, or pignolata. A Calabrian treat made for the holidays or for just before Lent, pignolata are known as struffoli in Naples and Sicily. They’re also called pignocata and pagnucatta, Make sure you use top-grade honey.
Brutti ma Buoni
These unevenly-shaped almond or hazelnut cookies are aptly named — brutti ma buoni means “ugly but good.’’ Popular in Prato, central Italy, these chewy, nutty cookies are credited to Constantino Veniani, who first made them in 1878at his pasticceria in Gavirote, near Milan.
A chocolate and almond flourless cake legendary on the island of Capri, thus its name. There are at least three versions of its origin. My favorite: a baker making a cake for American gangsters got flustered and forget to add flour. Often served with a scoop of gelato, torta caprese is fairly easy to make. The best, according to one cook, should be “rich, gooey, moist, dark, dramatic, seductive and sexy.’’ That’s it?
The black licorice aroma of anise was a familiar one in my childhood, with anise cookies and biscotti, plus anisette, the liqueur. Italians have used anise in cookies for hundreds of years. Anise cookies are sweet little dollops of decadence, distinguished by a light glaze. Hissy-fit extract warning: use pure, not imitation, extracts, in your baking; cooks who don’t like the smell or taste of anise often substitute almond flavor.
“One of Italy’s great gifts to the rest of the world,’’ says The Food Lover’s Companion, and we won’t argue. The dessert is made with egg yolks, sugar and .. well, there the variations begin. Most recipes call for marsala or other wine, others for cognac, rum, even grappa. The result is a “warm, boozy, egg-y cloud of deliciousness, the down comforter of the dolci universe,’’ says seriouseats.com. Zabaglione is really easy to make.
Butter cookies in America bear little resemblance to those you’ll find in Italy, but they’re an important part of any Italian bakery in this country. Butter, sugar and flour make for a simple, classic cookie, even if the ones at many bakeries are not made in-house but by wholesale suppliers. No matter, they’re still great. If you’re making them at home, use both butter and shortening for a cookie that crumbles but is not too dry.
A small pastry tart whose fillings — chocolate, black grape jam, black cherries — vary by region. Big – or is that little? – brother to the cream-filled pasticiotti, bocconotti – its name means “one bite’’ – are especially popular in Abruzzo and Calabria. Lemon zest or cinnamon can be added for extra flavor. Use shortening, not butter. This recipe is guaranteed to “make your skirt fly up.’’ It doesn’t say what happens if you’re not wearing a skirt.
I never heard of ciarduna — and several other items on his list — until this project. An almond pastry native to Sicily, the tubelike ciarduna is filled with ricotta or mascarpone. It’s a “good source of instant energy, but may not be preferred by calorie conscious eaters on account of the generous use of sugar and cheese,’’ says ifood.tv. If you’re reading this list, you’re probably not too concerned with calories to begin with.Torta della Nonna
Torta della Nonna
How can you not like a cake name after your Grandma? Only problem is, everyone’s Grandma seems to make this dessert a bit different — either ricotta or pastry cream filling, topped with pine nuts or almonds, with vanilla, lemon zest and powdered sugar as enhancers. Take a walk on the wild side and add liqueur-soaked raisins. Popular in Liguria and Tuscany, it apparently was first made by Guido Samorini, owner of a Florence restaurant.pignoli cookies
What would Italian bakers do without their pine nuts? Pignoli cookies, a staple in southern Italy and Sicily, are crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside, and altogether delicious. The dough is easy to make — almond paste, egg whites, flour and sugar. And don’t be looking for a substitute for almond paste; it enhances the flavor and helps the cookies brown easily.
Not to be confused with the pasta of the same name, mostaccioli are pastry or cookies made from a dense, honey-flavored dough and often enlivened with cinnamon, cloves, almond, lemon, chocolate and other ingredients. The original recipe dates to 300 B.C, but most food historians say the cookie as we know it today became popular in Calabria in the mid-1600s. Like most authentic Southern Italian cookies, oil or shortening, not butter, is used.
A sweet pastry made from curly ribbons of dough, and a Christmas staple in Puglia. The original recipe was likely developed by the Greeks. Honey, cinnamon powder and wine are common ingredients. The dough is cut into thin strips; “carta’’ is Italian for paper. Traditionally, the final step is soaking the cookies in boiling must — the freshly pressed juice of grapes before fermentation happens. I think you can skip that part; I don’t think even your sharp-eyed Italian grandma will notice.
A cake with whipped cream sandwiched between meringue, making for a dessert that has few matches in sheer decadance. There are many variations, with chocolate, peaches, vanilla and lady fingers among the ingredients. Except for the custard, you don’t need to cook or bake anything. Many liken it to an ice cream cake — without the ice cream. Recipes are not easy to come by online; here’s one.
Fried pastry puffs, similar to beignets, filled with ricotta. Sfinci are similar to zeppole, but lighter, with a cream filling typical to Sicily. In Southern Italy, sfinci are associated with St. Joseph’s Day. They’re made with flour, sugar, baking powder and eggs, with the dough dropped into hot oil. One sign of authentic sfinci: the cream is inside, not simply spooned on the outside; the latter is a mark of a lazy chef.
Keep me away from these. Not the iced coffee but bow-like fried dough strips, also known as Nothings for their wispiness, and a popular Carnevale treat throughout Italy. Another name for them: crostoli. They’re usually drizzled with melted chocolate or dusted with powdered sugar. The real deal: when alcohol, particularly white wine, is added to the dough for moisture and acidity.
A crazy cross between candy and fruitcake, panforte is Italian for “strong bread,’’ because of this cake’s sweet, spicy flavor. Cinnamon, cloves, coriander and nutmeg are common ingredients. It’s a specialty of Siena dating to the 13th century. Jamie Oliver says they’re “not too tricky’’ to make; he uses candied peel, sherry, cardamom and “runny honey’’ in his recipe.
Undoubtedly the most Technicolor-resplendent of all the treats on this list. These almond-paste-flavored cookies, flavored with jam and topped with chocolate, are an Italian-American invention, created by immigrants to honor the colors of the Italian flag. The runaway hit at Glaze in New Milford, West Caldwell and Fort Lee: Italian rainbow donuts.Baba (finedininglovers.com)
A small yeast cake covered — make that drenched — with rum, baba are one of those outrageous desserts that you don’t want to make a habit of. Some say it was invented by a Polish king, who named it after his storybook hero Ali Baba. Others credit the French; “baba’’ means “falling over’’ or “dizzy.’’
Cantucci are essentially biscotti; the latter word has a different meaning here than in Italy, where it refers to all biscuits. Cantucci are meant to be dipped in white-grape dessert wine. Ingredients: flour, sugar, eggs, almonds. Pick them up at Prato Bakery in Jersey City, where they’re produced “by master bakers who jealously guard the ancient recipe.’’
Contributor: NJ, seriouseats