Italian Table Talk: Holiday traditions & Cavallucci
I’m not the first one to say this but it must be pointed out that Tuscan cookies are not pretty. In fact, you could say the same for traditional Tuscan desserts in general. Preferring salty to sweet, Tuscans don’t have a huge repertoire when it comes to desserts, but the sweets that exist usually play an important part during holidays, from the biscotti for All Saints Day, to this traditional bread made at Easter.
Another thing you’ll find commonly in Tuscan sweets are the traces of a medieval or Renaissance past – a love of layered spices, honey, plenty of nuts and canditi – mixed dried fruits, not the dried fruit you think of today but artfully made candied fruit, like the ones you can find at this apothecary shop in Florence. This is especially so when it comes to the baked goods made for special occasions. Around Christmas time there are plenty to choose from and many seem to revolve around the medieval city of Siena. From the city’s famous rich, dense panforte, to the almond ricciarelli and these snow white cavallucci, you’ll find those remnants of history’s favourite flavours.
Many Tuscan cookies – cantuccini or biscotti are a good example – are usually hard, jaw-breaking things. There are two very good reasons for this. One is longevity: they will easily last you months. The other is so you can do what every self-respecting Tuscan would do with a cookie in hand: dunk it in dessert wine. Vin santo, to be exact. The sweet wine moistens the cookie to perfection without it crumbling back into your glass and adds a bit of boozy sweetness to each mouthful. It’s a humble yet satisfyingly civilised ending to a meal and a ritual at any Tuscan gathering, especially on occasions such as Christmas.
Cavallucci, which literally means ‘little horses’, have developed, over the centuries, a slightly softer, chewier inside than most other Tuscan cookies. Traditionally made with local Tuscan honey (now often replaced with a sugar syrup) and scented with aniseed (a favourite Tuscan spice), and now often made also with cinnamon, cloves and other sweet spices, these cookies date back to the Renaissance times of Lorenzo the Magnificent.
Over time, it seems that the ball was dropped when it came to knowing exactly why these cookies were named after horses. One theory is that they were traditionally served to the servants that worked in the horse stables that the city housed for their beloved horses (Siena still the city of the Palio, the world famous horse race, after all). Another is that they were served in the countryside inns surrounding the city of Siena to passersby on horseback. Probably the most convincing to me is that they were a popular snack for Renaissance travellers – the cookies supplied energy-giving sugars to the travellers on horseback and kept well on long trips.
Today, these rough-looking, round blobs of cookies are still traditionally eaten around Christmas time and often given as gifts when visiting friends or family. Although they’re popularly bought from the best pastry shops around (and Siena has no shortage of these, from Nannini in Via Banchi di Sopra, 24, to Dolce Siena right in the Campo itself), they also make a wonderful homemade gift, along with a bottle of vin santo of course, for a touch of Tuscan Christmas.
This month’s Italian Table Talk explores some other holiday traditions, be sure to check them out too: Valeria at My Love Life Food talks about bigoli in salsa, a classic Venetian dish for Christmas eve, while Giulia from Juls’ Kitchen bakes her grandmother’s cardoon flan, a seasonal and typical dish for the Christmas table, and Jasmine at Labna makes cantuccini and speculates their similarity to Jewish mandelbrodt.
And for those who are making their own Christmas gifts this year, here’s a little present I made for you: free downloadable pdf of hand drawn gift tags for all those homemade goodies you’re preparing. Simply print out with a high quality setting onto a heavy paper such as card, cut out, punch a hole and attach with pretty ribbons!
Generally, these cookies have a harder shell and a softer inside, as baking is kept to a minimum. If you do prefer your cookies crunchy (or you plan on taking them for a long journey on horseback), you could bake them longer but try not to let them colour. As with many homemade recipes, there are variations from house to house – check out Giulia’s cavallucci recipe too.
- 300 gr of flour, plus extra for dusting
- 300 gr of white sugar
- 100 ml of water
- 100 gr of freshly shelled walnuts, chopped
- 50 gr of candied orange pieces, chopped finely
- 15 gr of aniseed, whole
- 5 gr of ground cinnamon
Prepare a syrup by diluting the sugar and water over a low heat and reducing until it thickens slightly but not so that it colours. Take it off the heat and mix in the walnuts, candied orange and the spices. This syrup really takes the place of honey, which was used in centuries-old versions of this cookie; feel free to substitute with honey (honey is sweeter than sugar so you can use less).
In a separate bowl sift the flour. Add the hot syrup and mix together to form a dough. You want a consistency that you can roll into small balls (add a little extra flour if you need to). Dust them with flour to roll then place them on a baking sheet lined with baking paper and pat lightly to flatten them slightly.
Bake for about 15 minutes at 180°C or until the cavallucci are hard to the touch but not coloured, they are to remain flour-white.