The advent of Christmas in Italy is marked by the enormous quantities of special cakes available in food stores.

Most well-known is the Milanese panettone, a tall, roundish cake studded with raisins and, usually, candied orange peel.  There are a couple of legends associated with the beginnings of panettone. One tells of how the cook at a luxurious banquet in the Sforza household burnt the dessert but fortunately a lowly scullery boy had put together this odd and delicious cake which became the hit of the evening.  Another tale is of a falconer who invented the cake to woo his lady love.  In both stories the cake became so popular that from the Middle Ages it became the symbol of families gathering together to celebrate Christmas.

From Verona comes pandoro, a tall, star-shaped cake with a consistency similar to brioche. Pandoro, in its present form, dates to the late 1800s, but its precursors go back further, probably to Venice in the 1200s.  Siena produces panforte, a flat mixture of nuts and dried fruit held together by a little dough.  The Sienese cakes also has very early origins, deriving from a primitive focaccia made with flour, honey and fruit.

Modern (industrial) versions of all the cakes can come with chocolate, custard, alcohol and all sorts of – to purists – bizarre and unacceptable additions.  Whatever one’s preference, however, the season would not be the same without one of the cakes eaten for dessert, or at breakfast, or as a snack.