Who doesn’t love Italian desserts? The wide variety of choices ensures that even the fussiest guest will be pleased. Whether preparing one of the traditional Italian recipes from the old country or the modern variations, Italian desserts are the perfect ending to a meal or a treat alongside a cup of coffee or tea.
The Role of Italian Immigrants
Americanized Italian desserts have been extremely popular in the United States for decades. As Italian immigrants traveled through the country, their rich cultural heritage influenced the people that they encountered. Recipes from Italy were adapted to use new ingredients, reflect local preferences or include cooking techniques from other countries, creating an entirely new generation of recipes that had never been experienced in Europe.
Desserts and more Italian Desserts…
What county fair would be complete without fried dough lavishly dusted with powdered sugar? Americanized gelato is close to our own ice cream, mass produced with much higher in fat and sugar in order to be shelf stable for long periods of time. Our biscotti is similar to only one of the many types eaten in Italy. American biscotti is generally served with hot coffee, rather than the Italian custom of eating it alongside sweet dessert wines
The Italian Cannoli Turned American
The American cannoli, a popular crispy fried tube filled with sweetened, flavored ricotta cheese is similar to the Italian version. The primary difference is how the cannoli cheese cream filling is flavored. While candied cherries and citrus peel are popular in Italy, Americans tend to prefer their cannoli cream to be plain or studded with chocolate chips.
Cannoli cream is used by creative cooks in many other desserts. Cannoli ice cream is a purely American invention, generally containing cannoli cream flavored base with broken pieces of cannoli shell folded in. Other pastry chefs use the filling for layer cakes or innovative baked creations.
Until recently, Italian chocolate was mostly unknown here. In the past few years, Nutella has become increasingly available. This rich hazelnut and cocoa spread has acquired something of a cult status. It is often eaten during breakfast in Italy, but is more frequently eaten for dessert in the United States.
Old fashioned Italian desserts are relatively unknown in the United States. The sweet course in Italy contains savory elements and strong alcoholic flavors. Italian palates are also accustomed to less sugar than Americans expect.
Desserts and the Holidays
In Italy, many desserts were only made during Catholic holidays, though recently, professional bakeries have begun carrying the more popular choices year round. In addition to being delicious, many of these baked goods have religious symbolism.
Baked Easter specialties can be decorated with Doves, a symbol representing peace. The colomba di Pasqua is a buttery yeasted cake flavored with candied citrus peel. After shaping the dough into a dove shape, it is garnished with pearl sugar and almonds.
After 40 days of austere Lenten diets, Italians rejoice in the arrival of Easter. Easter Sunday is celebrated with treats unique to each of the regions of Italy. Hand made, delicious chocolate eggs conceal toys or jewelry. Cheese is baked into a sweet pie known as crostata or pastry called formagelle. Other traditional Easter desserts include cakes made from rice, wheat berries and other grains.
Fruit desserts are very common in Italy, especially in the areas with lush produce. Fruit salads, candied fruit or fresh figs stuffed with mascarpone are simple desserts. Fruit is also made into fritters, pastries and cakes. It’s even used with sweetened ricotta and chestnuts to stuff fresh ravioli before deep frying and dusting with powdered sugar.
It would be remiss to write about Italian food without mentioning coffee. Unlike the United States, dessert coffees are always drunk black and generally unsweetened. Popular variations on espresso include the caffe Americano, which is diluted with extra hot water, or the extra strong ristretto.
Coffee is usually served without milk after mid-morning, but may not always be unflavored. Corretto is espresso that has been “corrected” with grappa or other Italian liqueurs. An affogato is a scoop of ice cream served in a cup of hot espresso.
Italian cooks are keenly aware of balance in their meals, so heavy first and second courses will call for a light dessert. Cookies or fruit gelato might be served to guests who were served red meats or cheese and pasta dishes. On the other hand, a decadent, rich dessert would be appropriate after a light seafood or vegetarian meal.