Though to most Americans Christmas is the biggest holiday of the year, in Italy it ranks fourth or fifth in importance. Easter, All Soul's Day (when Sicilian children receive gifts), St. Joseph's Day (Fathers' Day in Italy) and the feast of any town's patron saint are celebrated with more fervor than Christmas. Traditionally, gifts are exchanged on Jan. 6, the Epiphany, a feast that commemorates the visit of the gift-bearing Magi to Bethlehem. In Italy the presents are brought by La Befana, an aged, broom-bearing crone, a sort of distinctly Italian version of Santa Claus.
Baking is not as elaborate as for the Italian Easter. It's confined to easy-to-prepare specialties that are well within reach of the average home cook. Elaborate creations such as panettone, the traditional Milanese Christmas cake, or panforte , the Tuscan fruitcake from Siena, are usually factory products, but local specialties are still made in the home.
\o7 Nadalin \f7 is an easy yeast-risen Christmas cake, not nearly as complicated or rich as its descendant, the Veronese \o7 pandoro\f7 . It's traditionally the first cake that young girls are allowed to prepare for the family. \o7 Nadalin\f7 is a practical choice for making in advance--it freezes perfectly.
\o7 Cucidati, \f7 the traditional Sicilian Christmas pastry, is a large ring of sweet dough filled with a mixture of dried figs, nuts and chocolate. It may be kept for weeks in a tin in a cool place. The unbaked ring of filled dough may also be sliced up to make Sicilian Fig Cookies.
The Alto Adige region, not far north of Verona, has been part of Italy for less than 80 years and retains a strong Austrian influence in all its food. Its capital, Bolzano, is the home of \o7 Zelten\f7 --a type of moist fruitcake that is probably Austrian in origin.
From Southern Italy comes \o7 Struffoli, \f7 a wreath of tiny fritters bound with caramel. Though this traditional Neapolitan pastry is usually bound together with a caramel made from honey, I prefer to use sugar for its better flavor and less sticky texture.
Though it may not be the most important holiday in Italy, Christmas is still observed with a hearty "\o7 Buon Natale\f7 ," a glass of sweet wine, and a sweet.
\o7 The star-shaped Nadalin or pandoro mold is available in many kitchenware shops. You may also use a 9x3-inch springform pan.
NADALIN (Christmas Bread From Verona) 1 package dry yeast 1/4 cup warm water 2 large eggs 1/3 cup sugar 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon vanilla 1/2 cup plus 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled 2 1/4 cups unbleached flour Powdered sugar
Sprinkle yeast over warm water in small bowl. Set aside 5 minutes until yeast has dissolved and begun to bloom. Beat eggs in large mixing bowl. Beat in sugar, salt and vanilla. Beat in 1/2 cup melted butter. Stir in yeast mixture, then mix in flour. Knead dough until smooth and elastic, either by hand or in heavy-duty mixer with dough hook on low speed, about 10 minutes.
Turn dough into buttered bowl, then turn over so entire dough surface is buttered. Cover bowl loosely with plastic wrap. Let rise in warm place until doubled in bulk, at least 1 hour. Turn dough out onto lightly floured work surface and fold it over on itself several times to deflate.
Butter star-shaped Pandoro mold or 9x3-inch springform pan and half-fill mold with dough. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and allow to rise until dough fills mold. Bake in lower third of 375-degree oven until long, thin knife inserted in center comes out clean, about 40 minutes. Check for doneness after 25 minutes to make sure it does not overbake and become dry (different molds can shorten cooking time).
Immediately invert mold onto cake rack and remove bread from mold. Brush top and sides with remaining melted butter, then invert again and brush other side. Cool completely. Keep tightly wrapped in plastic wrap at room temperature until serving time. Before serving, dust lightly with powdered sugar. Makes 12 servings.
\o7 These traditional Sicilian Christmas rings are made in many different versions throughout the island. They are often sprinkled with multicolored diavoletti (nonpareils) before being baked. The rings can also be sliced and baked into American-style cookies.
CUCIDATI (Sicilian Fig Rings, or Sicilian Fig Cookies) 4 cups flour 2/3 cup sugar 1 teaspoon baking powder 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 cup cold unsalted butter or lard, cut into 10 pieces 6 large eggs Fig Filling Multicolored nonpareils, optional
Combine flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in bowl of food processor and pulse several times to mix. Add butter and pulse again until mixture is reduced to fine powder. Add 5 eggs all at once and continue to pulse until dough forms into ball. Wrap dough in plastic wrap and chill. (Dough may be prepared several days in advance and kept refrigerated.) Beat 1 egg well with dash salt.