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italian christmas recipes
(return to food)

"Natale con i tuoi; Pasqua dove vuoi." Means "Christmas with your family, and Easter wherever you want."

The Christmas recipes are from all over Italy. Two of the recipes were kindly shared by one of our virtualitalia readers. They are the orange and lemon salad, which you will find in the Christmas Eve dinner, and the roasted artichokes in the Christmas Day meal.

Christmas Eve dinner is always "in bianco" - that is, white. No meat is served, only fish, vegetables, cheese and grains. Christmas Day dinner is much more voluptuous. Italian children look forward to January 5th, Epiphany, when La Befana arrives to fill the children's stockings.

As to the question that's been on everyone's mind, "why do Italians always have Christmas diiner that includes 7 fish plates?" a reader of the food forum offers this explination:

" I have always heard the number of fish varies from region to region. But it is always an odd number. The number Seven is for the seven sacrements of the Roman Catholic Church. Nine stands for the Holy Trinity times 3 (a very powerful number.) Eleven is for the twelve apostles, minus Judas. Thirteen stands for Christ and twelve. I've also heard of fifteen and twenty one but I can't seem to recall their significance.The meal progresses course after course (always the smaller to the larger fish)."

see also...

Italian Holiday Cooking

Jewish Holiday Style


Antipasto - Appetizer

Fennel Antipasto
Vinaigrette Dressing:
1 clove garlic, minced
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon each salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
3 tablespoons chopped chives
6 tablespoons olive oil
3 fennel bulbs
2 red bell peppers, seeded and cut into
1/4-inch julienne strips
1 green bell pepper, seeded and cut into
1/4-inch julienne strips
1 cup cooked garbanzo beans, drained
1/2 cup pitted, halved Ni oise or Greek olives
3/4 cup crumbled feta cheese
1 or 2 bunches watercress

2 tablespoons capers, drained

In a bowl combine all dressing ingredients except oil. Whisk in oil gradually until thoroughly combined. Trim root, stalk, and feathery leaves of fennel. Chop and reserve 1 or 2 tablespoons of leaves for garnish. Cut fennel bulbs vertically into 1/4-inch slices, then into 1/4-inch julienne strips. In a bowl mix fennel, bellpeppers, and onion, and pour boiling water over them to cover. Leave in water for 2 minutes, then thoroughly drain and cool. Add garbanzo beans, olives, and feta cheese. Add vinaigrette dressing, tossing to combine. Marinate several hours in the refrigerator. Ring a salad bowl or individual plates with watercress. Arrange antipasto mixture in the center. Sprinkle with reserved fennel leaves and capers.

Serves 6.

From: More Recipes from a Kitchen Garden, by Renee Shepherd and Fran Raboff, Ten Speed Press, 1995.

Primo Piatto - First Course

Minestre - Soup

Soup is typically served for the Christmas meal in Italy, often enriched by stuffed pasta or savory dumplings.

Tortelli in Broth
For the pasta:
1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 eggs
10 cups chicken broth

For the besciamella:
2 tbsp. unsalted butter
3 tbsp. flour
1 cup whole milk

For the filling:
1 shallot, chopped
2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
10 mushrooms, sliced
2 chicken thighs, boiled
2 tbsp. truffle paste
2 tbsp. grated Parmigiano Reggiano

Make the pasta: Pour the flour on a counter; make a well in the center, add the eggs and salt, and work into the flour until a smooth dough forms. You might need to add a little water or flour. Wrap in plastic; set aside for 30 minutes. Cut into 4 pieces. Using a pasta machine, roll into thin sheets. Cover with a clean kitchen towel.

Make the besciamella: Melt the butter in a pan. Add the flour; cook over medium heat 4 minutes, stirring. Whisk in the milk; cook until boiling and thick, whisking.

Make the filling: Saut the shallot in the olive oil. Add the mushrooms, salt, and pepper and cook until soft; pur e in a food processor. Debone the chicken; pur e in the processor. Combine with the mushrooms, 1/2 cup of the besciamella (reserve the rest for another use), truffle paste, Parmigiano, salt, and pepper. Place teaspoons of the filling on half of the pasta sheets; top with the remaining pasta. Press between the rows of filling to seal; cut with a round 1" cookie cutter. Knead the trimmings until smooth; repeat the procedure until you have used all the ingredients. Bring the broth to a boil; cook the tortelli until al dente. Serve in a soup tureen, passing extra Parmigiano around the table.

Serves 12

Secondo Piatto - Second Course


Baked Whole Sea Bass
A good choice for a main dish when you are serving a large group-a dramatic presentation, and easy to prepare.

2 medium firm tomatoes (12 ounces total),
1 large onion (about 9 ounces), peeled
1 medium green pepper (about 5 ounces), cored and seeded
1 medium red pepper (about 5 ounces), cored and seeded
1 medium yellow pepper (about 5 ounces), cored and seeded
1/2 cup white wine
3 tablespoons dark raisins
1 whole sea bass, head and tail attached, scaled and gutted (about 2 pounds),
1/2 teaspoon olive oil
1 large garlic clove [about 1/6 ounce, peeled and cut into slivers
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 bay leaf, crumbled
1/4 teaspoon dried rosemary. Salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Slice the tomatoes with the ultra thick slicing disc of a food processor. Reserve. Slice the onion with the thick slicing disc and reserve.

Cut the peppers lengthwise into 1-inch strips. Reserve. Pour the wine over the raisins to marinate for 30 minutes. Make a diagonal slash on each side of the fish, about 1/4-inch [6mm] deep and 2 inches long. Oil the fish on both sides and stuff each slit with a few garlic slivers, butter pieces, a small piece of bay leaf, a pinch of rosemary, salt and pepper. Lightly salt and pepper the outside of the fish.

Fill the cavity of the fish with a few slices of tomato and onion, pepper strips, the remaining butter, bay leaf, garlic, rosemary, salt and pepper.

Preheat the oven to 350F.

Place the stuffed fish in a well-buttered roasting pan and strew the remaining vegetables around it. Cover the pan with aluminum foil and bake in the center of the preheated oven for 10 minutes. Remove the foil and bake 10 minutes more. Carefully turn the fish over and bake for 5 minutes. Pour the wine and raisins over the fish and bake 5 minutes longer.

Makes 4 servings of about 6 ounces each

Vegetable Plate

Potato Casserole With Cheese and Mushrooms-Tuscan style
2 large baking potatoes
3/4 tsp. salt
2 Tbs. olive oil
2 c mushrooms, sliced [=8 oz]
1/2 c Parmesan, freshly grated
1 onion, sliced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 Tbs. fresh parsley, chopped
1/2 tsp. dried thyme
1/4 tsp. pepper
2 c mozzarella, shredded

Peel and cut potatoes into thin slices. In bowl, toss potatoes gently with 1/2 tsp. of the salt and half of the oil.

In separate bowl, toss together mushrooms, half of the Parmesan, the onion, garlic, parsley, thyme, pepper and remaining salt.

In 8-cup greased casserole dish, arrange one-third of potatoes in slightly overlapping layer; cover with half of the mushroom mixture, then one-third of the of mozzarella. Repeat layers. Arrange remaining potatoes over top; sprinkle with remaining mozzarella and Parmesan.

Drizzle with remaining oil. Bake in 400F (200C) oven for 40-45 minutes or until tender. Let stand for 10 minutes.

4 servings

Source: Canadian Living magazine Oct. '94. Presented in article by Daphna Rabinovitch: "Italian Country Cooking." Recipes developed by Canadian Living Test Kitchen.

Contorni - Side Dishes

Porcini Brasati - Braised Porcini
1 lb. porcini mushrooms
4 Tbs. virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, chopped
salt, pepper
1/3 lb. tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped
1 Tbs. chopped parsley

Slice the mushrooms (or cut into quarters if they are very small). In a saucepan brown the garlic with olive oil and remove when brown. Add the tomatoes, saute for 5 minutes, and add the mushrooms. Cook mushrooms until tender but still crisp. Salt, pepper to taste and add the chopped parsley. Toss and serve.

Sauteed Spinach
1 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic
1 bunch fresh spinach, stems on, washed and dried

Heat the olive oil with the clove of garlic until the garlic starts to turn brown. Add the spinach, and using a pair of tongs, toss the leaves quickly to wilt them. Salt to taste, and if you wish discard the garlic.

Serves 2

Insalata - Salad

Arance e Limoni - Oranges and Lemons
A simple but unique and delicious dish. Peel and thinly slice 6 oranges of oranges. Peel and very thinly slice a couple of lemons. Season liberally with salt and pepper. Dress with extra virgin olive oil.

Il Dolce - Dessert

Ricotta Ring
2 cups plus 2 Tbs. unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
10 oz. unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/2 cups sugar
4 large eggs, separated

For the filling and decoration:
10 oz. ricotta
7 oz. imported mascarpone
1/3 cup plus 2 Tbs. sugar
1/2 cup chopped candied fruit
confectioner's sugar
20 confetti or toasted hazelnuts

Make the cake: Preheat the oven to 350F. Sift the flour and baking powder with a pinch of salt. Beat the butter and sugar in a mixer until creamy; add the egg yolks one by one. Fold in the flour. Whip the egg whites with a pinch of salt until they hold soft peaks; fold them into the batter. Butter and flour a 9" cake pan with a hole in the center; pour in the batter. Bake 45 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted comes out clean. Cool on a rack.

Make the filling: Combine the ricotta, mascarpone, sugar, and candied fruit. Slice the cake into three layers and spread with the filling; assemble the layers, dust with the confectioner's sugar, and decorate with the confetti or hazelnuts. Refrigerate, then serve.

Serves 12



Caponata di Verdura -- Caponata Made from Greens - A Sicilian recipe
This is a winter caponata, as you might guess from the list of ingredients. It is also the traditional cold dish served on Christmas day in the Madonie region.

1 pound fresh spinach, washed repeatedly and scalded in the water that
drips from the leaves until it wilts, then squeezed dry
3/4 pound chicory
1 cauliflower weighing about 1 1/2 pounds
3/4 pound cardoons (these are a flowerless relative of the artichoke; you eat the stems after stripping out the fibers as you might those of celery sticks. If you cannot find them, increase the other vegetables proportionately.)
1/2 pound Belgian endive
1/2 pound celery ribs
2/3 cup pine nuts
3/4 cup toasted bread crumbs
6 salted anchovies, scaled, boned and rinsed
6 tablespoons salted capers, rinsed
1 lemon, finely sliced
white wine vinegar
olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Boil, or better yet, steam the vegetables individually, chop them into bite-size portions, saut them in olive oil, seasoning them with salt and pepper, and sprinkle them with a little vinegar. Lay out the caponata in a serving dish.

Saute' the toasted bread crumbs in a little oil with the pine nuts, capers, anchovy filets, and lemon slices, then spread the mixture over the caponata and it's ready.

From Kyle Philipps' Cosa Bolle in Pentola

Il Primo - First Course

Cappelletti di Natale - Christmas cappelletti
Prepare a very thin puff pastry and pull it with a rolling pin. Use the following ingredients for the stuffing:
one pork steak,
one veal steak,
one chicken breast,
400 gr. of "stracchino" (soft cheese),
two egg yolks,
salt, pepper, nutmeg, and Parmesan cheese.

Lightly fry the meat, mince it finely, mix everything and then make some small "cappelletti," closing them very well with the fingers. These "cappelletti" are normally cooked for the Christmas lunch, with a broth of capon, beef and turkey. Capon was the preferred course of ecclesiastic people and princes.

Il Secondo Piatto - Second Course

La Carne - Meat

Bracioline Ripiene -- Stuffed Veal Cutlets
1 pound (8) veal cutlets
3 ounces lean veal, minced
1 1/2 ounces lean prosciutto, minced
1 1/2 ounces veal marrow, ground to a coarse paste (optional; increase the prosciutto if you leave it out. If you do choose to include it (it will give the dish a satiny texture), ask your local butcher for it or check an oriental market)
2/3 Cup grated Parmigiano
1 large egg
salt and pepper to taste
a small onion, minced
a small carrot, minced
a 6-inch stick of celery, minced
a slice of pancetta, minced
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup tomato sauce
1/2 cup dry white wine (optional)

To thin them, pound the cutlets well with a meat pounder or the flat of a wide knife frequently dipped in water.

Mix the remaining veal, the prosciutto, the marrow, and the cheese together, adding the egg last to bind the mixture; season it with a pinch of pepper (salt shouldn't be necessary because of the prosciutto and the Parmigiano). Stretch the cutlets out and spread the mixture over them, then roll them up and tie them with string.

Mince the onion, celery, carrot, and pancetta. Melt the butter in a skillet over a medium flame and, when the onion is lightly browned, add the veal cutlets, seasoning them with salt and pepper.

When the cutlets are browned, add the tomato sauce and a little water (or the wine), cover partially, and simmer them till they're done,15-20 minutes.

Remove the strings before serving.

These stuffed cutlets can also be roasted in the oven. While you're preparing them, preheat the oven to 350 F. Put the cutlets on a rack, baste them with olive oil and salt, and roast them till they're done (about a half hour), turning and basting them once or twice.

Serves 8

Pollame - Poultry

Cappone con le Noci - Capon with Walnuts
This is a specialty of the Lombardy region prepared during the Christmas season.

The excellent broth can be used to cook small ravioli and can be served as a first course.

1 4-lb. capon
1/2 cup cream
2 Tbs. butter
20 chopped walnuts
4 Tbs. grated Parmesan
3 egg yolks
4 Tbs. cream
1 celery stalk
1 carrot
4 slices white bread, crust removed

Clean and bone the capon and leave it in its natural shape. Soak the bread in the cream. Soften the butter and mix with the walnuts, the Parmesan, egg yolks, and the bread. Beat the mixture well with a wooden spoon until it is soft and dense, adding more bread or cream if necessary. Salt, pepper and add a pinch of grated nutmeg. Insert the stuffing in the capon; sew and tie the bird closed. Bring a large pot of water to a boil- the pot should be just large enough to hold the bird. Add celery and carrot, lower the heat and cook the stuffed capon in this broth over low heat for 1/2-2 hours, salting halfway through. Serve the capon carved with some of the stuffing. This dish may be accompanied by preserved spiced fruits (mostarda di frutta).

Verdura - Vegetable Plate

Red Onion, Goat Cheese and Basil Tart
Since the crust is made with purchased puff pastry, this delightful savory tart comes together easily.

2 medium-size red onions, unpeeled, each cut into 12 wedges
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 sheet frozen puff pastry (half of 17 1/4-ounce package), thawed
1 large egg, beaten to blend
8 ounces soft fresh goat cheese (such as Montrachet)
1/4 cup purchased pesto
1/4 cup whipping cream
3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil

Preheat oven to 400 F. Oil heavy large baking sheet. Toss onion wedges with oil in medium bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Arrange onions in single layer on baking sheet. Bake until bottoms of onions are golden and onions are very tender, about 25 minutes. Transfer sheet to rack; cool. (Can be made 1 day ahead . Cover and let stand at room temperature.)

Preheat oven to 400 F. Roll out pastry on lightly floured surface to 14 x11-inch rectangle. Trim edges to even. Cut 1/2-inch strip from each side of pastry, forming 13x10-inch rectangle; reserve strips. Transfer pastry rectangle to another heavy large baking sheet. Brush edges with some of beaten egg; reserve remaining egg. Place strips on edges of tart, creating border. Trim strips; press gently to adhere. Pierce bottom of pastry several times with fork. Bake until edges puff and pastry is golden brown, about 15 minutes. Transfer baking sheet to rack. Using metal spatula, loosen pastry from baking sheet. Cool completely on sheet. Reduce oven temperature to 350 F.

Stir cheese, pesto, cream and 2 tablespoons basil in medium bowl until smooth. Season with salt and pepper. Mix in remaining beaten egg. Spread cheese mixture evenly over bottom of crust. Remove peel and stem end from roasted onions. Fan wedges, golden brown side up, over cheese mixture.

Bake tart until crust is brown and cheese appears set, about 20 minutes. Transfer baking sheet to rack and cool tart to room temperature.

Sprinkle tart with remaining 1 tablespoon basil. Cut into squares.

10 Servings

I Contorni - Side Dishes

Sicilian Roasted Artichoke
From Ronald Scro

We also make a roasted artichoke with olive oil, salt, and garlic that I have never encountered anywhere else.

My mother, Teresa Scro, from whom I learned to cook, never used recipes. I had the unusual fortune of often helping her in the kitchen as a child but I remember only the preparing of the artichoke and then the later cooking stage. The artichokes would be in the oven sitting in a low metal pan with an inch of water covered by aluminum foil. I remember the aluminum foil covering the artichokes being removed for the final roasting which turned the ends of the leaves black, encrusted with salt.

Obviously, this was an innovation on her part since I doubt that my grandmother used aluminum foil. In that spirit, I have devised a method of making them that seems faster and, for reasons of failed memory or technique, only almost as good. I suppose I could contact my aunt for a more authentic approach, and if you request so, I will.

I prepare the artichoke in the typical manner, cutting off the stem and the end of each leaf. Then I wash the choke and cook it in a covered pan on the stove (or microwave) with an inch of water. Before cooking I drizzle olive oil over each and add more salt than can possibly be healthy. (I use olive oil with garlic but I don't think my mother used garlic when she made it.) When they are nearly done I put the pan uncovered in the oven and roast them. They never come out as salty or as perfectly darkly-colored yet flexible as when my mother made them but nevertheless they impress everyone who has sat at our table on a roasted artichoke day.

My mother learned this recipe from her mother-in-law Francesca Scro, who emigrated from Marineo, Sicily at the turn of the century and had no exposure to Northern Italians in Italy or the US, so I consider it a Sicilian recipe.

Potatoes with Parsley and Green Onions
1 cup sliced green onions (about 5)
1 cup coarsely chopped Italian parsley
1/3 cup olive oil
2 to 2 1/4 pounds medium-size red potatoes, rinsed, unpeeled

Using a knife, finely chop green onions and parsley together on cutting board. Transfer to small bowl. Mix in oil.

Meanwhile, cook potatoes in pot of boiling salted water until tender, about 25 minutes. Drain potatoes. Cut potatoes into 1-inch cubes; place in large bowl. Season potatoes generously with salt and pepper. Mix in green onion mixture. Serve hot, or let stand up to 2 hours and serve at room temperature.

4 to 6 Servings


Beet, Walnut and Gorgonzola Salad
6 small beets, trimmed (about 18 ounces)
6 tablespoons olive oil (preferably extra-virgin)
3 tablespoon Sherry wine vinegar
1 large garlic clove, pressed
Pinch of sugar
12 cups mixed baby greens
2 green onions, sliced
1/2 cup crumbled Gorgonzola cheese (about 2 1/2 ounces)
1/3 cup chopped walnuts, toasted (about 2 ounces)

Preheat oven to 400 F. Wrap beets in foil, enclosing completely. Bake until beets are tender when pierced with fork, about 1 hour. Cool slightly. Peel and slice beets. (Can be prepared 1 day ahead. Cover and refrigerate.)

Whisk olive oil, Sherry wine vinegar, garlic and sugar in medium bowl to blend. Season dressing to taste with salt and pepper.

Combine mixed greens, sliced green onions and beets in large bowl. Pour dressing over and toss to coat. Divide salad among 6 plates. Sprinkle with Gorgonzola cheese and toasted walnuts and serve.

6 Servings.

Il Dolce - Dessert

We always buy panettone and we have plenty on hand for breakfast, lunch, dinner and in between. But if you would like to know how it is made and maybe make it yourself, here is the recipe.

Panettone - Milano
Almost every region in Italy has its own holiday cake, but this Milanese cake is the most famous and certainly the most difficult to make. Panettone is available both in a high, dome shape or flat version. Natural yeast (that is, a piece of fermented dough) is essential to making a real panettone, because if the cake is made directly from brewer's yeast, its flavor is less delicate. In addition, the process of letting the dough rise must be carried out according to very specific instructions so that the result will be a soft and airy texture. In any case, the time required for rising depend on many factors: the temperature of the room, the season, the length of the mixing process, etc. Therefore the periods of time given in the recipe can only be approximate.

1 oz. baker's yeast
3 oz..flour , 2 cups flour
7 Tbs. sugar
1 whole egg
5 egg yolks
1/2 cup melted butter
6 Tbs. soaked, squeezed raisins
2 oz. candied orange and
lemon peel, diced
1 1/2 Tbs. butter

Mix the yeast with the flour and as much water as necessary to achieve an elastic dough, wrap in a towel and put in a warm draft-free place (an unlit oven for example) until it has doubled (should take approx. 30 minutes) in volume and the surface is uneven. Make a small fountain with 4 Tbs. flour. Crumble the dough cake on top of it, add 2 cups warm water and knead until you have a soft and elastic dough. Let rise in a warm place for 3 hours. Punch down the dough, then knead in another 4 Tbs. flour, with as much warm water as necessary. Place the dough in a warm place to rise for 2 hours. Combine the sugar, the whole egg and the yolks, mix well and cook in a double boiler for a few minutes, beating the mixture with a whisk so that it becomes light and airy. Let cool.

Make another fountain with the remaining flour. Put in a pinch of salt the risen dough, the butter and the egg mixture into the middle. Knead energetically for 20 minutes. When the dough is smooth and elastic, add the raisins and candied peel. Grease and flour a sheet of waxed paper and place the dough in the middle. Make a ring around it with a rectangular piece of cardboard and let rise in a warm place for at least 6 hours or until the dough has doubled in volume. With a sharp knife cut a cross on the top of the cake and put 1 Tbs. butter in the middle. Cook the panettone in a preheated 400 F. oven for 40-45 minutes. The cake is ready when a skewer inserted in the center comes out dry.


January 5th is an important night for Italian children: The Befana, a frightful witch, will mount her broom and fly through the sky to fill their stockings, with candy if they've been good, and with coal if they've not. Though now the kids just get their stockings on Epiphany, until quite recently they received almost all of their gifts on the 12th day of Christmas. If you think about it, the practice of giving a gift on Epiphany makes sense,since that's when the Magi arrived at the manger. And the Befana? There are a number of stories; according to one, she refused the Magi hospitality, then changed her mind and tried to follow them. But they were gone, so she still seeks the Christ Child every Epiphany.

Her arrival is often celebrated with the first batch of a traditional Carnival pastry known by a variety of names, including Cenci (rags) in Florence and Frappe in Rome; Ada Boni, who borrows Pellegrino Artusi's recipe, uses the more poetic "Lover's Knots." They are very pretty when carefully made, so she is probably right. To make a batch you will need:

Love Knots
2 1/4 cups (225 grams) flour
2 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup (35 grams) confectioner's sugar
2 eggs
1 tablespoon brandy
A pinch of salt
More confectioner's sugar for dusting

Make a fairly stiff dough with these ingredients, kneading it thoroughly, and adding more flour if it comes out too soft. Flour it and let it rest, covered. Then roll it out into an eighth-of-an-inch-thick sheet, and use a serrated pastry wheel to cut it into strips as long as your palm and two fingers wide. Make a cut down the middle of each cencio (so as to obtain two strips joined at the ends), twist the side strips without breaking them, fry them in hot oil or lard, and dust them with confectioner's sugar when they're cool. This recipe is sufficient to make a platterful. Should the dough have formed a crust while it sat, knead it again before you roll it out.


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