Our Christmas menu has changed through the years, as have the tablecloths my mum chooses to lay our festive table, the arrangement of the furniture in my parents’ living room, and my sister’s hairstyle.
Always different, but undoubtedly recognizable and familiar, our celebratory lunch as a family always happened on Christmas Day.
A Changing Spread
Appetizers came and went, following the decade’s fashion, our variable tastes, and our moods. Chicken liver spread has shared the table with smoked salmon canapés, and the spectacular and time-consuming chicken galantine has often stolen the attention from a more unassuming Pecorino cheese board with onion jam.
Fresh pasta, though, has always been on our menu. Often it came in the form of my grandma’s Marcella lasagne: one traditional, with a robust beef and pork ragù and bechamel sauce, and one made just with sautéed mushrooms and a shower of grated Parmigiano Reggiano.
Other times, we would opt for homemade ricotta and spinach tortelli dressed with a brown butter and sage sauce; or a rich bowl of handmade pappardelle with a gamey wild boar sauce; or in recent years, my friend’s Valeria cappelletti, tiny stuffed pillows of pasta cooked in a clear broth and served piping hot.
The Main Course
The main course would be the pièce de résistance of the menu, a changing centerpiece that again perfectly reflected our family’s habits.
For years, during the ’80s, a whole roasted salmon with lemon wedges and golden potatoes crowned our festive table, outshining more traditional dishes such as capon stewed in tomato sauce, stewed wild boar, roasted pork loin, or bollito misto, a collection of different boiled meats, including chicken and beef brisket and tongue.
But contorni, the side dishes, have always been my favorite part of the meal. My mum and grandma’s specialties are vegetable sformati, rich flans for which seasonal vegetables are puréed and mixed with bechamel sauce, eggs, and Parmigiano Reggiano, then baked until thick and crisp on top.
I remember many Christmas lunches where I happily skipped the main course for a double serving of spinach sformato.
There is one thing, though, that has never changed, and never will: the spread of sweet treats that always closes our Christmas lunch.
Timeless Sweet Treats From Siena
While our Christmas meal has always been influenced by new trends and fashions, the sweet treats have always been the same, those of the Sienese tradition: ricciarelli, cavallucci, and panforte.
When I was a child, we would buy ricciarelli in boxes at the supermarket: wrapped in plastic, in a box twice as big as the actual cookies inside. They had a distinctive bitter almond flavor and a thick dusting of icing sugar.
These delicate almond cookies, scented with orange zest and vanilla, date back to the 15th century.
Almond paste, in the form of marzipan or marzapanetti cookies, was once very popular in Siena, and the town was famous even outside its territory for its production. These cookies made with almond paste were reserved for the sumptuous banquet of the lords, because they were made of precious ingredients, mainly almonds and sugar.
They were so valuable and refined that marzipan sweets were sold in apothecaries, along with drugs and the most exotic spices of the time.
They’re still a favorite in Siena during Christmastime, beloved for their delicate, melt-in-your-mouth texture, appearing in every pastry shop or bakery window. Now we always buy a dozen from local pastry shops—or in recent years, bake a batch ourselves, filling the kitchen with a heavenly sugary, almond aroma.
Our cavallucci used to arrive home in a paper bag directly from San Gimignano, the medieval hilltop town where my mother was born and where my granddad Remigio still lived. He would purchase them in an old grocery store where he used to shop for everything he needed.
These cookies still remind me of his huge hands, his forest-green woolen jumper, his tweed coppola hat that he would remove as soon as he stepped into our house.
Cavallucci are just as old as ricciarelli, but not as elegant. During the Renaissance, they were known by the name berriquocoli, and they have stayed the same through the centuries, keeping honey, sugar, flour, candied peel, and spices as their ingredients.
According to Giovanni Righi Parenti, the Sienese gourmet and author of the book “La Cucina Toscana” (“Tuscan Cooking”), the name cavallucci could have come from the lost custom of stamping the figure of a horse, or cavalli, on the freshly baked cookie.
Another explanation, also from Righi Parenti, is that the name derives from country inns where horse-driving carriage drivers, or cavallari, stopped on their way to the city. These spiced treats were sold to help them stave off hunger, and as an invitation to drink at the establishment.
Now you can buy cavallucci in many bakeries in the Sienese area, but my mum loves to bake her own batch in our wood-burning oven, gifting paper bags of the cookies to family and friends in continuation of my granddad’s tradition.
I love ending a meal with a tasting of ricciarelli or cavallucci, but what I love the most, both eating and baking, is panforte, Siena’s most representative sweet treat.
Growing up, we would buy slices of panforte, always the same brand, with old-fashioned drawings on the paper case. It was sticky, overly sweet, slightly spiced, and very traditional.
The origins of panforte begin in the medieval monasteries of the area, where this “strong bread” would be prepared for special occasions. Later, panforte passed to the hands of local apothecaries, those with access to rare and precious ingredients like sugar, almonds, candied fruit, and spices.
Spice is what makes panforte special, in fact. Its intense, honeyed aroma, like that of the almonds and orange zest of ricciarelli, is for me the true smell of Christmas.
Giulia Scarpaleggia is a Tuscan-born and -bred food writer, food photographer, and author of five cookbooks, including “From the Markets of Tuscany.” Find her online at her blog, JulsKitchen.com
RECIPE: Stuffed Pork Loin