Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Five Stories of Italian Cakes

Italy has an excellent collection of sumptuous cakes that come onto the shelves in the local shops around Christmas but where did they originate from and what do their names mean.

Since the 16th Century, the people around Siena have been making small sticky, chewy scones containing walnuts, honey, candied fruit and aniseed. Originally these Tuscan doughy cookies were made for the stable boys hence their name cavallucci, which means "little horses"

Panforte is another Tuscan cake made with almonds, spices, honey and candied fruit. There are two stories about its discovery, an orphan who visited the baby Jesus had nothing to offer the infant, save a dried crust of bread from his pocket. Joseph gave a crumb to one of the birds nesting in the roof and returned the rest to the boy , thanking him. The orphan left feeling upset that his gift was to poor an offering but on his return home he found his mother dressed in elegant clothes and his father in a bright shiny suit of armour. On the kitchen table was a feast, the centre piece being a cake made with almonds, honey and spices.

The second tale from the 13th century is that a nun called Sister Leta found that rodents had eaten through the bags that the sugar, spice and almonds were kept in. The ingredients had all been mixed up in the cupboard and moving a black cat out of the way she suddenly thought "why not just mix them all together in a pan" so not wishing to waste them decided to create something from the mixture.

Once it was ready the cat purring, turned to her and said "go on then, try it". Well Sister Leta realising that cats can’t talk so this must be the devil throw the contents of the saucepan over the cat and promptly banished the demon back to hell. Upon hearing all the commotion Sister Berta mother Superior came running into the kitchen and listened to the tale, curious as to what heavenly concoction could overcome the Devil she tasted it and that is how panforte came into being.

Another Christmas cake, containing honey, almonds, eggs with an interesting story is the Torrone. It was first created on October 25th 1441 for the wedding of Bianca Maria Visconti and Francesco Sfroza in Cremona. It was made by the cites pastry chefs for the wedding and was in the shape of the city’s tower the "Torione" which at that time dominated the skyline. As guests for this occasion came from all over Europe this sweet soon became popular throughout the continent.

This Milanese cake famous throughout Italy at Christmas was first made, legend has it back in the 15th century. A nobleman, falconer Ughetto Atellani who fell in love with the daughter of a poor baker called Toni. He decided to disguise himself as a baker and made a rich, sweet cake containing nuts, candied peel, raisins in order to win her hand. The Duke of Milan, Ludovico il Moro Sforza agreed to the mariage and at which Leonardo da Vinci was present the cake Panettoni ( Toni’s bread) was introduced.

Pandoro or Golden Bread has a long history, its existence documented as far back as the first century, and Pliny the Elder is known to have liked it. Popular with rich aristocrats in the middle ages due to the expensive ingredients of spices, nuts and honey or sugar and served in palaces throughout the land. The modern version is credited with being perfected in Verona where it was near to the spice markets of Venice.