In Trieste, every season and holiday has its “must-haves” sweets, whether it’s Titola for Easter, Gnocchi di Susine to mark the end of summer or Fave dei Morti in the Fall. Christmastime is no different and holiday tables will be laden with a variety of baked goods. Here are the desserts that you will surely find at a typical Triestine Christmas:
Presnitz, 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, 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 is 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 flavor combinations 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 infusions….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!!
For the Dough
Store bought puff pastry 250-300g
For the Filling
150 g walnuts
100 g almonds
100 g hazelnuts
50 g raisins
50 g Sugar
100 g dark chocolate
50 g pine nuts
1/8 cup rum
1/8 cup Marsala wine
3 Tbsp butter
1 egg yolk
Soak and soften the raisins in the rum and Marsala in a fairly large mixing bowl for about 30 minutes.
Grind the walnuts, hazelnuts and almonds.
Pour the ground nuts into the mixing bowl and add 50 g of sugar. Mix thoroughly and let marinate for about 8 hours.
When the mixture is ready, roll out the puff pastry dough with a rolling pin until a thin sheet is obtained. Pour the contents of the mixing bowl on top and spread it uniformly over the pastry dough. Add the pine nuts, finely grated dark chocolate and dot the filling with butter. Roll the pastry dough over itself, close the ends well and shape it into a spiral.
Brush the surface with beaten egg yolk.
Bake at 180°C for approximately 25 minutes.
For the Dough
1 kg of flour
30 g of fresh brewer’s yeast
3 egg yolks
300 ml of warm whole milk
120 g of butter
1 teaspoon of salt
2 tablespoons of sugar
2 tablespoons of butter to grease the mold
For the Filling
600-700 g of walnuts
200 g of honey
50 g of sugar
100-200 ml of warm milk
a dash of grappa
Soak the chopped yeast with a teaspoon of sugar in half of the warm milk and two tablespoons of flour. Let it rest in a warm place for at least half an hour until fermentation is visible.
Mix the flour with the salt and then with the remaining milk and the yeast, the eggs and the butter.
Work the dough in a kneader or by hand until it is smooth and elastic.
Let rise covered with a cloth in a warm and humid place for about 45 minutes or until bubbles appear and the pasta separates from the bowl.
In the meantime, prepare the filling.
Grind the walnuts and pour a little hot milk over them – not all of it.
Heat the honey until it becomes liquid, add it together with sugar and cinnamon and the remaining milk (make usre it doesnt become too runny – you don’t have to use all the milk.)
Let the filling cool off.
Add one or two eggs for the filling and mix thoroughly.
Roll out the dough until it is about ½ cm thick. Roll up the dough tightly and place it in the buttered mold. Leave the Putizza to rise again for about half an hour.
Before cooking, brush with beaten egg. Bake at 180 degrees for about an hour. Remove from the oven and leave to stand for at least half an hour before turning it out. Sprinkle with icing sugar before serving. (recipe courtesy of LA CUCINA ITALIANA Oct. 2016 issue)