I am a Tuscan born and bred country girl, from a family of people who love traditional food. Olive oil runs through my veins, and I love nothing more than pappa al pomodoro, our famed stale bread and tomato soup. I stock my pantry and my fridge with local beans, pecorino toscano, our typical unsalted bread, chestnut flour, and Tuscan kale in the winter.
At Christmastime, my family has always closed our festive meals with local sweet treats from Siena. When I was younger, we would buy them at the supermarket. Then, when my passion for good food grew and became contagious, my mum and I started baking everything from scratch: first ricciarelli, delicate almond paste cookies; then panforte, the Sienese nut and fruit spiced cake; and finally cavallucci, sturdy walnut Christmas cookies. We would line the ricciarelli up on our marble table and bake trays of cavallucci in our wood-burning oven, the spiced aromas of these medieval treats permeating the kitchen.
At the end of a meal, we would open the decorated tin boxes where we kept these cookies, belonging to our Tuscan traditions, and serve them with pride.
Along with my Tuscan traditions, though, I’ve also always cherished my Southern roots. My paternal grandfather was from Melfi, a hilltop town in Basilicata, famous for its medieval Norman castle and its proximity to a volcanic lake. I owe him my baroque surname, and my love for dried oregano, semolina bread, and onion-stuffed focaccia.
When we spent festivities and family gatherings with my aunt Teresa, the best home cook of the Southern Italian branch of my family, the table was always anchored by a triumph of a lasagne, made with tiny meatballs, caciocavallo cheese, spicy salami, and breadcrumb-stuffed peppers.
As for the sweets, Christmas tasted like calzoncelli, tiny parcel-shaped cookies filled with chocolate and almonds, with a hint of lemon zest. In the beginning, my aunt would bring them back from Melfi when she visited the family. Eventually she started making them in large quantities, trying to meet the requests of all her nieces and nephews.
When I met my husband, Tommaso, I embraced his mixed traditions, too. My father-in-law is from the mountains over Florence, so we often share very similar habits, but my mother-in-law was from Salento, the heel of the Italian boot, a land of generous people and incredible food. I fell head over heels for this land of sun, sea, and wind, for the local breakfast made with cream-filled pasticciotti and almond-scented caffè in ghiaccio, for the taralli and olive-studded bread, for the homemade orecchiette with tomato sauce and fermented ricotta.
Whenever Tommaso’s aunt and uncle joined us for Christmas, they would come with a selection of the local specialties. And so our celebrations gained the citrusy scent of puccedduzzi, honey-glazed fried dough buttons covered with sprinkles; the taste of almond paste cookies and fried baccalà; the sounds of belly laughs and prosecco bottles being uncorked. Among the trays of cookies and the bags of taralli, I discovered mostaccioli salentini, dense, nutty, diamond-shaped cookies with a chocolate glaze—marking the beginning of an ongoing love affair.
Every year now, starting around the beginning of December, I pay tribute to the different souls and traditions that make up my family and that make our Christmas unique. I’ve learned that choosing what is meaningful for us, mingling the traditions, and keeping it simple are the keys to having a relaxed, intimate, and genuine Christmas season.
So, to my ideal Christmas cookie box, I add the rustic Tuscan cavallucci of my childhood, studded with walnuts and candied citrus peels; the tiny, chubby calzoncelli from my aunt Teresa, with their brittle outer shells and rich chocolate-almond filling; and the mostaccioli salentini from my husband’s family, dark and dense and enrobed in that chocolate glaze. Each bite is a way to travel through time and space, to visit dear ones who are no longer with us, and to teach my daughter the meaning of family and tradition.
Here, I’m glad to share my family recipes, so that you can add a bit of Italian Christmas to your own celebrations.