Italian Gourmet Sweets and Desserts
As with all food, Italians take great pride in their desserts. Italian Chocolates, ice creams, cakes and other sweets are artistic expressions made from only the best quality local ingredients. Delicate chocolates and chocolate spreads from Italy are world renowned. Italian ice cream, or gelato, is typically flavored with fresh fruit purees, cocoa, and nut pastes, giving it a more natural taste then ice cream in the United States. Christmas and New Years bring out special cakes and confections across Italy that fill the houses with wonderful sweet aromas. Sometimes overlooked, due to the popularity of Italian wines, cheeses, and pastas, Italian sweets are among the best in the world.
In Roman times and the early Middle Ages cakes and most pastries were dense and heavy because honey was the main sweetener. Sweet preparations became lighter when refined sugar was introduced around the beginning of the Renaissance. Sugar had been around for centuries, but it had been used almost exclusively as medicine. Other ingredients were gradually added to an increasingly elaborate culinary practice. Romans transplanted cherries, plums and peaches to Italy from the Middle East, and citrons, oranges and lemons appeared in southern Europe shortly before the time of Christ. The unique flavor of many traditional Italian pastries and confectionery products depends on candied peel and marmalades. The increasing taste for complex sweet preparations encouraged wider cultivation of hazelnuts, walnuts, and especially almonds. Something was still missing.
Around the beginning of the 17th century chocolate arrived in Italy from the New World and was soon playing a key role in making pastries and confections. Italy’s most important chocolate invention called gianduia is a mix of chocolate and hazelnut. Nutella is a popular modern chocolate-hazelnut spread, a modified form of crema di gianduia, or spread of gianduia. Individual miniature chocolates became popular among Italians during the period between the two world wars. Providing an artistic expression through flavor assortment and beauty of packaging, Italian chocolates are some of the most unique and flavorful in the world. Some favorites are the Bacio, Blue Rose, Boeri, Gianduiotto, Mon Cheri, Otello, and Rocher. To this day the Italian Confectioners Association, or Associazione Industrie Dolciarie Italiane (A.I.D.I.), strictly enforces chocolate to be made from 100% pure cocoa butter.
Toward the end of the 17th century, coffee was introduced from Ethiopia and almost immediately became the favorite beverage of Italians, especially accompanying pastries and desserts, as well as an important flavoring in sweets. Over time Italian cooks and pastry chefs have shown versatility in incorporating each ingredient and innovation into their culinary traditions. They have constantly developed new preparations, while at the same time retaining the essence of the old.
Since Ancient Roman times, cakes and cookies have been treats associated with bread making. Roman bakers, created numerous recipes using flour, honey, eggs and fresh cheeses. These sweets were considered so precious that they were offered only on special occasions. Inspired by the spice breads of the Orient, the first pangrandi, or great breads, were introduced for Christmas and Easter. Enriched with dried fruit and honey the already prized wheat bread was elevated to a holiday treat. Panettone, along with pandoro, pandolce, and panforte are the most commonly eaten holiday bread cakes. Torrone, a nougat confection, is another sweet holiday specialty from Italy. Sugar coated nuts called confetti are another prized Italian sweet. Confetti can contain anise, coriander, cinnamon or clove for added flavor and are given to guests at weddings, baptisms, and graduations.
The Italian confectionery industry is quite modern. In fact, at the end of the 1950’s, this industry was still practically absent. Since then the development in the sector has been massive. The success has been attained by both the large companies and the hundreds of smaller and medium-sized companies. The confectionery industry in Italy has established an admirable energy and entrepreneurial spirit.
In 2008, Italy produced over 1.8 million tons of confectionery products, exporting about a third, for a total value of over 11 billion Euros. This was nearly a 5% increase from 2007. The growing success of the industry speaks to the renowned quality of Italian sweets. From their elegant packaging, to their superior ingredients and unique recipes passed down from ancient traditions, sweets made in Italy take the cake.