In Trieste, every season and holiday has its “must-haves”, whether it’s Titola for Easter, Gnocchi di Susine to mark the end of summer or Favette in the Fall. Christmastime is no different and holiday tables will be laden with a variety of baked goods. While Triestines are VERY SPECIFIC about what is a Triestine vs Friulan or other nationality “specialty” , in truth, because there has been so much cultural cross-pollination due to the city’s location at the epicenter of MittleEurope, it’s hard to find any one thing that is uniquely Triestine. I am told however, that these are the desserts that you will find at a typical Triestine Christmas:
A circular shaped strudel made with pastry dough and filled with a mix of many of the following ingredients (depending on preferences): hazelnuts, walnuts, almonds, pinenuts, prunes, dried figs, dried apricots, raisins, eggs, sugar, cinnamon, cloves, some dark chocolate, sometimes coffee and rum or marsala. It is said that in its original presentation, the circular cake carried a marzipan inscription that read “se giri il mondo ritorna qui” (if one travels around the world one comes back here”).
As to its origins, some say that it was made for the first time in honor of Carolina Augusta of Bavaria in 1832 on a visit to Trieste and it received a special recognition “Preis Prinzessin” (The Princess’ Prize) which the locals promptly mispronounced as “Presnitz“. Others claim that the protagonists of this same story were Emperor Franz I and his wife Elizabeth, (the more famous and beautiful and romantic, “Sissi”). Others say it derives its name from the town of Pressnitz which was once in Bohemia — no one knows for certain but, more than likely, it is an Eastern European dessert which at some point traveled westward towards Trieste — it might even have origins rooted the Middle East.
While I list this as a Christmas cake here’s a quick disclaimer — this is a cake you will find nonetheless year round in Trieste and often it is just as important to have at Easter.
Like the Presnitz, Putizza is also a cake served at Christmas, but it too is easily found year-round and present at other holidays. It is similar to Presnitz in its ingredients, the difference being that this is a leavened cake. Also circular in shape, it is said that its name is derived from the Slovenian word “poviti” which means to roll.
The Tronchetto del Nadal (Christmas Log) is what we know as the Yule Log or more elegantly, the Bûche de Noel. It has its origins in old pagan Celtic rituals when a large tree or log was burned on the shortest day of the year to mark the Solstice. The log burning tradition continued throughout history and soon became a holiday seasonal tradition — eventually, the cake appeared as a quaint reference to country-folk customs. Gaining traction in the Victorian era, the Buche became a staple in French and English homes. Now popular everywhere, the cake is typically made with “Genoise”, a sponge cake that originated in Genova, and chocolate pastry cream rolled up and decorated with marzipan characters and often, meringue mushrooms. There are no limits to the flavors combos one can devise, from hazelnut, to chocolate Grand Marnier, fruit, chestnut, etc. Several pastry shops in Trieste are happy to make them to your specification.
The Sacher Torte is an iconic Viennese dense chocolate cake with a thin layer of apricot jam and covered in chocolate ganache. Largely present in Trieste in honor of the city’s strong connection and admiration of all that is Austrian. It is an elegant and rich cake which makes it an obvious choice for the holidays although, it too, is available year round and not exclusive to Christmas.
Finally, the Pandoro and Panettone! These are the classic Italian Christmas cakes present in many households during the holiday season. Store bought, home-made, Artisanal, simple or “farciti” (filled) they are eaten throughout the holiday season for breakfast or snack or dessert. One can find them already “flavored” for the holidays or you can buy it plain and make your own holiday concoction with ice cream or mascarpone or zabaglione, fruits, chocolate sauce, liqueur infused….go nuts!
In the end, a Christmas cake is whatever you want it to be, some of us like the Carsolina that looks like it’s been dusted with snow. Or the Fritelle which are delicious balls of fried dough filled with either pastry cream, chocolate or fruits and nuts…I’ve even found in Trieste (to my great relief since i have sustained several hot oil injuries making this for my husband) the southern Italian Christmas treat, Struffoli.
So whatever you serve, serve whatever you like, may your Christmas be sweet and your New Year be bright!!