All About Italian Desserts
In Italy, il dolce is not only a sweet way to end a lunch or dinner—it’s also the way many Italians start their day. The term dolci literally means “sweets,” though the French term “dessert” is also frequently used in Italy. It encompasses everything from small pastries, piccola pasticceria—including pasticcini, or tiny tarts and biscotti—to the larger, more elaborate forms of pasticceria such as cakes and pies (torte),as well as all kinds of other goodies such as gelati and mousse. Food lovers and gourmands recognize pasticceria and gelateria as arts in their own right—and a good Italian cook knows a little something about the fundamentals of both.
Whether you have a sweet tooth or not, most would concede that dolci have a special place in the world of food. They elevate mood, bump up an otherwise humdrum meal, and make even a cranky curmudgeon feel pampered and special. In Italy, it’s still a ritual on Sunday morning, especially in the small towns, to buy pasticcini. These tiny pastries are made with a myriad of ingredients ranging from chocolate to cream or fruit fillings, often incorporating nuts such as almonds or pistachios. These are enjoyed at home after lunch or as a snack between meals.
The classic brioche or cornetto, which is very similar to the French croissant, often accompanies the Italians’ beloved morning cappuccino. Other classic pastries include semifreddi, half-frozen desserts,
and those world-famous Italian biscotti such as amaretti, which are almond biscuits. For a kid, there is nothing better on a winter afternoon than a cup of dark hot chocolate, richer and thicker than the American version, with some homemade biscotti or a slice of torta. In many Italian families, there is at least one person with a special talent for baking; but often, local pastry chefs are called upon to provide the more elaborate creations for weddings and religious holidays.
In Italy, la pasticceria—unlike many other aspects of Italian cuisine—has been greatly influenced by neighboring countries. For instance, Italians often eat the same dolce as Austrians: chocolate cake or apple strudel; they enjoy the same crème caramel or crème brulee as the French; and the English dessert called Zuppa Inglese (sponge cake soaked in liqueur) is a national favorite. In Sicily, the North African influence is particularly strong, where the use of almonds and honey in the regional patisserie lends a distinctive flavor to their desserts.
As for the most essential ingredients of Italian dolci—after sugar, butter, eggs and flour, cocoa and chocolate are by far the most commonly used ingredient. But the list goes on: fruits of all kinds; fresh and dried nuts like almonds, hazelnuts and pistachios; cream and custard (crema pasticciera) as well as well as ricotta, which is the key ingredient of some amazing desserts such as Pastiera napoletana. Liqueurs such as grappa and maraschino are also often used. You’ll notice many of these ingredients in the following descriptions of four classics of Italian patisserie:
Literally translated as “English soup,” this is one of the most popular dolci in Italy. Its origins are unclear, but very likely it was inspired by the English trifle, which was probably brought to the Este court in Ferrara by diplomats centuries ago and later adapted by Italian chefs in the kitchens of the British gentry residing in Tuscany. Zuppa Inglese consists of layers of sponge cake soaked in a red liqueur called Alchermes alternated with layers of crema pasticcera. Some prefer to substitute half of the cream with chocolate cream, which is made simply by whisking pure cocoa and dark chocolate into the warm custard. The top of the dessert is usually embellished with colorful berries and grapes.
Torta al Cioccolato
A good chocolate cake is probably one of the most beloved foods in the world, enjoyed especially in countries where excellent chocolate and cocoa is produced or available—Italy being one of them. Though there are dozens of way to prepare it, a great chocolate cake allows the sublime flavor of chocolate to prevail over any other ingredient. The best torta al cioccolato is dense yet feels light, smooth and buttery— and most importantly, the chocolate should be exquisite. Using only the finest and freshest ingredients—cocoa, dark chocolate, eggs, flour, sugar and baking yeast—is crucial for a superb homemade torta al cioccolato.
This kind of pie can be found in every region of Italy, the fillings varying with region and season. Traditionally, a crostatahas or jam filling is used, preferably a homemade one, with a somewhat pungent taste; black currants, tart plums or cherries are typically used. The pie crust is made with pasta frolla, or short dough, that is then covered with jam and topped with a lattice of dough. Sometimes almond flour is used instead of an all-purpose one, and the dough flavored with vanilla beans or lemon zest. The amount of sugar added to the short dough should be modest, varying according to the sweetness of the jam. Part of the pleasure of this dessert is that it is not too sweet.
Torta di Ricotta
This is a simple, delicate cake, that is relatively easy to prepare with equal parts of ricotta, flour and sugar. Eggs are important, as well as the whites whisked into “firm snow peaks” or “bianchi battuti a neve.” The zest of lemon, or the yellow peel, is also an important ingredient. The cake is simply made by combining ricotta and sugar with flour and a bit of pastry yeast. Then the very firm egg whites are folded in and the mixture is poured into a buttered and floured baking pan. Torta di Ricotta is more common in the southern regions of Italy, where variations abound.