Experts Reveal How To Master Italian Holiday Cooking

Italians go all-out when it comes to the holidays, preparing special dishes and desserts that reflect long-held traditions, although what you’ll find on menus and at home will vary from region to region. While Italy is beyond reach for many travelers at present, you can still celebrate the holidays as the the Italians do. Here, three culinary experts, Enrica Monzani, Domenica Marchetti and Francesca Montillo reveal what they will be offering in their online cooking classes to help bring some of the country’s festive offerings to your own holiday table. (All three also offer food-centric tours in Italy, good to keep in mind for when travel returns to normal.)

Enrica Monzani, A Small Kitchen in Genoa

For anyone who is thinking of visiting Liguria, home to such Riviera magnets as Cinque Terre, Portofino and Rapallo, or wishing they somehow could be there now, reading Erica Monzani’s blog, A Small Kitchen in Genoa, is a must. This site, filled with recipes and articles about the region’s artisanal cooking, provides an enticing look at local culinary traditions and also gives insider tips for dining in Liguria. Prior to the pandemic Monzani hosted immersive cooking classes in her home kitchen; now she offers them online. On December 12 and 19, Monzani will host webinars on pandolce, Genoa’s Christmas sweet bread (made with raisins, nuts and fennel) whose local origins date to the 16th-century, and the traditional anise biscotti called anicini. There are also plans for a tutorial on cappon maggro, the city’s rich seafood salad often served during the holidays. Private online classes will be available as well. For more information: enrica@asmallkitcheningenoa.com

Monzani provides links to holiday recipes from her own Christmas-day menu on her blog, which includes Genoese maccheroni (natalini) in broth; a special salad from the Riviera town of Chiavari made with scorzonera, a root vegetable common in Liguria; and pandolce. “We tend to prepare the same menu,” says Monzani. “This makes the Christmas feast a kind of rite. Some years we cook Genoese meat ravioli instead of maccheroni.” For additional tips on giving the holidays a Ligurian twist, check out her article on Genoa Christmas traditions.

Domenica Marchetti, Domenica Cooks

Domenica Marchetti, author of seven cookbooks on Italian cuisine (including The Glorious Vegetables of Italy and The Glorious Pasta of Italy), has added a new course to her online cooking classes and it’s devoted to preparing holiday sweets. Marchetti chose three confections, each from a different area in Italy, with recipes utilizing regional ingredients. All are personal favorites. “Baking cookies was the major holiday activity in our house when I was growing up,” she says.

The cookies to be featured in the class, scheduled for December 5, 10 and 12, include ricciarelli, a tasty biscuit made with ground almonds, egg white, and citrus zest. “They’re from Siena and date to the Renaissance,” says Marchetti, “To me, the fragrance of this cookie is every bit as evocative as gingerbread probably is to many others.” Another sweet to be mastered is baci di dama (which translates as “women’s [or ladies’] kisses”) from Piedmont. Marchetti describes them as “two cookie buttons sandwiched together with a drop of bittersweet chocolate.They have a warm toasty flavor and practically melt in your mouth.” The third recipe is for giuggiulena. “This is not a cookie but rather a confection made with sesame seeds, almonds, plus honey and orange zest, sort of like a sesame halva,” says Marchetti. “It is a good example of the Arab-Middle Eastern influence in Sicilian cuisine and ingredients. Giuggiulena are decorated with sprinkles which give them a festive touch.”

Marchetti has also scheduled an online class in conjunction with the Italian Cultural Society on December 15 featuring a a three-course menu. The lesson will include dishes Marchetti prepares during the holidays, like spaghettini con ragu di tonno (tuna sauce), and endive and orange salad. “My family makes the spaghettini every Christmas Eve, as well as the salad to accompany it,” she says. The lesson ends with soft amaretti cookies, one of the many types of cookies Marchetti bakes for the holidays.

In addition to the December classes, you can find recipes for Italian holiday dishes on her blog, Domenica Cooks. Among them are panforte di Siena and Italian rainbow cookies. For main courses, there are recipes like scrippelle ‘mbusse (crepes in broth), “a very traditional Abruzzese winter dish that I like to serve as a first course on Christmas Day,” she says, and zuppa di cozze (mussel stew). “This isn’t written up as a holiday dish but I often serve it at Christmastime.”

Francesca Montillo, The Lazy Italian

Francesca Montillo, author of two Italian cookbooks (the most recent, Pasta in a Pinch, was published in October) has two classes devoted to holiday offerings. One is a seafood dinner—in Italy fish is often served on Christmas Eve, with the Feast of the Seven Fishes a bountiful version of the tradition that’s popular in Italian-American households. In Montillo’s class, Christmas Eve Seafood Dinner (December 12), you’ll learn how to prepare four fish varieties, including shrimp, cod, and swordfish dishes, along with a tuna and anchovy pasta salad. “Sicilians love anchovies and olives together and find a multitude of ways to enjoy this combination,” says Montillo about the salad recipe. “Swordfish is another favored dish in Calabria and Sicily. The baccalà (cod) and potatoes is perhaps the most traditional dish of all, and very much a component of the Christmas Eve dinner in the south.”

For her holiday cookie class (December 19) Montillo is featuring pizzelle and hazelnut butterballs. “Pizzelle [from the Abruzzo] are everyone’s favorite and because many see a resemblance to snowflakes, they seem to go well for winter desserts, especially at Christmas,” she says. Montillo chose the hazelnut butterballs as another option because she says they not only reflect the Italian fondness for filberts, “but are also one of the very few cookies that are egg-free, so they make a great addition to the dessert table for anyone with an egg allergy.”

More holiday ideas can be found on Montillo’s blog, The Lazy Italian. She shows how to dress up biscotti for the holidays with a recipe for fruitcake biscotti, and provides how-tos for other tempting sweets like cherry-topped ricotta cookies and the well-known struffoli, which are little balls of fried dough dipped in honey and topped with colored sprinkles.

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