Ferrara’s Bakery & Cafe in New York City, one of the more well known Italian bakeries in America

Rich Italian dessert recipes are known around the world. They rank right up there with the French creations. Any cook interested in preparing delicious desserts will tell you of their favorite tiramisu recipe.

Decadent, flavorful and classic: Italian desserts have it all. These delicious desserts also have a long history, and many of the items on your favorite Italian restaurant’s menu have been around for ages.

Here in the United States most of us think that desserts were devised for our pleasure and, if we have a good meal, we must have a luscious dessert at the end. The Italians reserve these luscious desserts for only special times of the year. Typically they serve fresh fruit and maybe a piece of robust cheese at the end of a meal. Perhaps this comes from their early history of not having regular access to sugar and using much less sugar in their recipes than American cooks.

It is all the fresh ingredients, like cream and cheese, which make Italian desserts so delicious. For example, a dessert originating from Florence is Zuccotto, a semi frozen dessert of ice cream, cake and brandy, that is made in a cone shaped mold. The Panforte recipe is a traditional dessert with a spicy flavor containing fruits and nuts like a fruitcake. This recipe originated in the Tuscany region and, after it was baked, the cake was used as a tax payment to the monks. It is similar to Panettone, a sweet bread made at Christmas time. Biscotti, which are now considered by many to be a gourmet dessert, also originated around this time, although the original versions were less complex than those of today.

Italian dessert recipes are broken down into two groups. The ancient or the oldest of the sweets that were derived from bread recipes. A little honey or fruit was added to sweeten bread recipes. Later came the more modern recipes, when sugar became plentiful. Italy began producing milk, eggs, honey, and almonds. These, along with added sugar, turned out sweet creamy desserts like Italian cheesecake, Panna Cotta, Cannoli and Italian cream puffs.

As sugar became affordable to more home cooks, a new range of Italian dessert recipes appeared, such as Tiramisu, Rum Cake and Cassata Cream Cake. These old-fashioned cakes were made with ricotta or mascarpone cheese. Italian ice is refreshing and popular and is similar to a snow cone, except Italian ice cream is frozen after the fruit juice is added to the water. Italian ice dates back to the time of Nero.

The history of Italian desserts, also, reveals that torrone dates back to Roman times when it was used in religious ceremonies. This nougat confection is made with egg whites, nuts, and honey and  is popular all over the Mediterranean.

Chocolate is often used in Italian cookie recipes and some of the most famous ones include Baci, which is a dark chocolate “kiss” filled with hazelnut cream and Gianduiotto, which is a combination of hazelnuts, sugar, and cocoa. Chocolate has been layered with cream and espresso in the Torino region of Italy since 1763. Today, chocolate is one of the most popular additions to Italian recipes.

Italian desserts continue to be made throughout Italy, and the various regions of the country have their own specialities. Italian American immigrants have made changes to the classic desserts with some delicious results. For example, since mascarpone cheese was not as common in America, many desserts began to use ricotta cheese more frequently in desserts such as cannoli and cheesecake. Despite these changes, Italian desserts are still outstanding and their long historical significance makes them even more appealing to many Italian American families.

Like all countries, Italy has its own Italian food customs. Special days of the years, especially Easter and Christmas, are times to bring out all the Italian desserts. All holidays are celebrated with special foods. Italian Easter food always consists of a traditional Easter pie. Each family has its own unique recipe and each one discusses it with friends and neighbors. For these special days most desserts are made at home but they are, sometimes, purchased in the local pastry shop (or pasticceria). The art of pastry making has been passed down and Italian chefs are renowned for their skills.

Italian Rum Birthday Cake

An Authentic Bakery Version of Italian Rum Cake

My Version of Italian Rum Cake

Once A Year Italian Rum Cake

Italian rum cake is a traditional Italian dessert often purchased at an Italian bakery and served on birthdays or other special occasions. It is a stunning four layer creation that is flavored with rum, filled with alternating layers of vanilla and chocolate (pasticciera) pastry cream, topped with whipped cream icing, and garnished with almonds. I developed my recipe, below, because I am not a fan of the typical rum cake and because my family has shown a preference for this cake at Italian restaurant dinners, I decided to experiment. Since my version of the” Italian Rum Cake” is still very rich and decadent, I only make it once a year, usually for my husband’s birthday. No other cake comes close to this for him.

Ingredients:

For the layer cake:

  • 1 2/3 cup sugar
  • 1 stick unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 3 eggs
  • 2 1/4 cup all purpose flour plus 1 tablespoon flour
  • 2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/4 cups milk
  • 1 cup finely ground hazelnuts (almonds can be used if you cannot find hazelnuts)
  • 1/2 cup rum

For the cake filling:

  • 1 cup Nutella (chocolate hazelnut spread)
  • 8 oz. mascarpone cheese

For the topping:

  • 2 cups heavy cream (whipping cream)
  • 1 cup powdered sugar
  • 1/4 cup rum
  • Shaved chocolate

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Coat the bottoms of two 9 inch round cake pans with cooking spray – don’t spray the sides of the pan. Line the bottoms of the pans with wax paper circles cut to fit. Spray paper with cooking spray and dust with 1 tablespoon flour. Set aside.

For the layer cake:

In an electric mixer beat together the sugar, butter and vanilla for 5 minutes. This is important- do not cut the time down.

Add eggs one at a time beating well after each addition.

In a separate bowl whisk together flour, baking powder and salt.

Add 1/3 of the flour to the sugar mixture alternating with 1/3 of the milk. Repeat until all flour and milk are incorporated ending with flour.

Stir nuts in on low speed.

Pour evenly into pans and bake for 30 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean.

Do not overbake or the cake will be dry. Cool 10 minutes and remove layers to a cooling rack and carefully peel off the paper. Cool thoroughly.

 

Place layers on kitchen towels and cut each in half horizontally. Drizzle each of the four layers with the rum and let sit for awhile.

For the filling:

Beat together the Nutella and the mascarpone cheese until very smooth.

Spread evenly on top of 3 cake layers.

For the topping:

Whip the cream until very stiff. Add powdered sugar and blend. Add rum on low speed.

To assemble:

Place one layer covered with filling (filling side up) on a cake plate and top with remaining layers ending with the unfrosted layer on top. Completely cover the cake with the whipped cream mixture.

Chill in the refrigerator for several hours. Just before serving decorate the the cake with chocolate shavings.

Italian Desserts

The rest of the year – try one of these healthier Italian dessert recipes for your next special occasion.

Sweet and Savory Taralli Cookies

Italian Cookies

Italian Taralli cookies are a great example of Italian baked goods. These crunchy, curly cookies can be sweet or savory. They can be plain or with fruit or nuts and they might also contain spices like fennel or anise. You can find Italian Taralli cookies all over southern Italy but they are especially popular in Puglia. These light-flavored, not very sweet, cookies make an appearance in Italy on birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, and Christmas because most Italians associate them with these events. Everyone has their own preferences as to what to eat on these occasions but taralli are really good and, if you have not had them before, you will be impressed with them for sure. You can frost them if you want to, using any frosting recipe to do this.

Another characteristic that makes Italian Taralli cookies wonderfully unique is their shape. These cookies come in different shapes but the most common ones are rings. There is no reason for making them this shape – it is purely traditional.

Sweet Taralli Cookies

Makes 2 1/2 dozen

Ingredients

For The Cookies

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup sugar or 1/4 cup light sugar alternative
  • 1 large egg or 1/4 cup egg substitute
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cup Marsala wine
  • Zest of 2 oranges

For The Icing

  • 2 tablespoons milk
  • 1 tablespoon orange juice
  • 1 cup confectioners’ sugar

Directions

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

In a mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, orange zest and salt.

In a separate larger bowl, whisk together the sugar and egg until well combined. Stir in the olive oil and wine. Slowly add the flour mixture until well combined, kneading slightly until the dough is easy to handle and medium-soft.

On a clean surface, use your hands and roll the dough into 1/2-inch-thick, cigar-like rolls. Cut each cigar into 6-inch pieces, folding each piece into a loop-shape. Press the dough with fingers to seal together. Place on a parchment-lined rimmed baking sheet.

Bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until slightly golden. Remove to a cooling rack and cool completely.

If you wish to ice them, whisk 2 tablespoons of milk and 1 tablespoon of lemon juice into 1 cup confectioners’ sugar. It should be the consistency of thick whipping cream. Dip one side of the cookie in the glaze and let dry. For special holidays the cookies are decorated with sprinkles.

Savory Fennel Taralli                                                                                                                                               

Ingredients:

  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 envelope active dry yeast
  • 3/4 cup warm water
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon fennel seeds

Directions:

Pour the water into a bowl and whisk in the yeast. Whisk in the oil.

Put the remaining ingredients in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Pulse several times to mix. Add the liquid and pulse again until the dough forms a ball. Let the processor run continuously for about 10 seconds to knead the dough.

Invert the dough to an oiled bowl and carefully remove the blade. Turn the dough over so that the top is oiled and cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Let the dough rise at room temperature until in doubles in bulk, about an hour.

After the dough has risen, scrape it out of the bowl to a lightly floured work surface and use a bench scraper or knife to cut it into two equal pieces. Roll each piece of dough under the palms of your hand to a 15″ length and cut each into 1″ pieces to make 30 equal pieces in all.

One at a time, roll each piece of dough under the palms of your hands, into an 8″ strand. Join the ends together to make a circle, pressing firmly to seal. Line up the formed taralli on a lightly floured work surface or floured baking sheets, making sure they do not touch each other.

Set the oven racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat to 350°F. You will need two baking sheets with cooling racks (see picture of baking pans in this post).

Fill a large pot (such as the one in which you would cook pasta) 3/4 full with water. Bring the water to a full rolling boil. Set one of the baking sheets on the stovetop next to the pan of boiling water. Drop the taralli, 6 or 8 at a time into the boiling water and remove them with a skimmer as soon as they float to the surface. Arrange them about an inch apart in all directions, on the prepared baking sheet with rack.

Bake the taralli about 30 minutes, rotating from the upper third of the oven to the lower third, and vice versa, midway through the baking. Continue baking the taralli until they are golden and crisp. Remove from the oven and cool to room temperature on the cooling racks in which they were baked.

(Makes 30)

Italian Cakes

Cornmeal was introduced to Italy around 1600 through commerce with Asia. Cornmeal is used throughout Italy to make polenta and is also traditionally added to dessert cakes and other baked goods.

Torta Di Meliga (Italian Cornmeal Cake)

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup chopped blanched almonds
  • 1 cup yellow cornmeal
  • 1/4 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup sugar or 1/4 cup light sugar alternative
  • Pinch of salt
  • 4 ounces melted butter or Smart Balance Blend
  • 1 tablespoon powdered sugar

Directions:

Preheat oven to 400F. degrees.

Combine in a mixing bowl almonds, cornmeal, flour, sugar, salt and butter.

Spray a 9 inch springform pan with cooking spray; spread dough in pan.

Bake 30 minutes or until golden brown; let cool slightly and remove sides of pan.

Let cool completely and sift powdered sugar over top. Serve with fresh fruit.

Italian Plum Cake

Italian Plums

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup unblanched almonds
  •  1/2 cup sugar or 1/4 cup light sugar alternative
  • 1/3 cup flour
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 2 large eggs (1/2 cup egg substitute also works)
  • 1/2 cup milk (low-fat is fine)
  • 4 tablespoons butter or Smart Balance Blend, melted
  • 2 pounds Italian plums or regular plums if your market doesn’t carry Italian plums

Directions:                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Spray a 10-inch springform pan with cooking spray.

Put the almonds and the 1/2 cup of sugar (or sugar alternative) in a food processor.

Pulse until the almonds are finely ground.

Add the flour and the salt and pulse once more.

Transfer this to a mixing bowl.

Beat the eggs with the milk then add the butter.

Add the egg mixture to the flour almond mixture. And mix until the batter is smooth.

Pour the batter into the springform pan and smooth with a spatula.

Pit the plums and slice in thick wedges.

Place the plum slices in a circle pattern on top of the batter.

Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, until the top begins to brown. Remove to a cooling rack and let rest 10 minutes.

Take a butter knife and go around the circumference of the pan. Open the clip of the pan and carefully lift up the rim. Cake can be served warm.

Italian Fruit Desserts

Italian fruit dessert are served at the end of a meal; they are very popular all over Italy.

Stuffed Figs                                                                                                                                                           

Ingredients:

  • 4 ripe even sized figs
  • 1/4 cup sugar or 2 tablespoons light sugar alternative
  • 1 cup skim ricotta cheese
  • 2 tablespoons amaretto liqueur
  • 4 shelled whole almonds

Directions:

Cut fig from top to bottom in half: DO NOT CUT ALL THE WAY THROUGH.

Cut fig the same way through the halves making 4 quarters still hooked together.

Then cut all the way through 1 of the cuts.

Now you can open the fig and have 4 sections still hooked together. See picture in post.

Combine in a mixing bowl the sugar and ricotta cheese and beat together (with hand mixer) until mixture is light.

Add amaretto and fold lightly into cheese mixture.

Spoon 1/4 cup mixture into the center of each opened fig and top with an almond.

Balsamic-Macerated Strawberries with Basil                                                                                                                          

Ingredients:

  • 2 lb. fresh strawberries, rinsed, hulled, and sliced 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick (about 4 cups)
  • 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
  • 2 teaspoons white balsamic vinegar
  • 8 to 10 medium fresh basil leaves
  • Frozen yogurt, optional

Directions:

In a large bowl, gently toss the strawberries with the sugar and vinegar. Let sit at room temperature until the strawberries have released their juices but are not yet mushy, about 30 minutes. (Don’t let the berries sit for more than 90 minutes, or they’ll start to collapse.)

Just before serving, stack the basil leaves on a cutting board and roll them vertically into a loose cigar shape. Using a sharp chef’s knife, very thinly slice across the roll to make a fine chiffonade of basil.

Portion the strawberries and their juices among four small dessert dishes and scatter with the basil to garnish. Top with a spoonful of frozen yogurt.

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