Christmas Cookies – Holiday Treats Inspired by our Italy Adventures

decorating cookies ski holidays dolomites italiaoutdoors food and wineOur Italiaoutdoors cycling and hiking tours bring us to many regions in Italy, each with its own unique culinary and holiday traditions. Here are a few Christmas cookie recipes I’ve developed over the years to recapture the flavors of my Italy adventures during the holiday season.

cookies top view bike and cooking tours italiaoutdoors food and wineOur culinary bike trips include cooking classes where we have made the classic Italian layered dessert, Tiramisu. Tiramisu is of relatively recent origin. There are various stories; some claim it originated at the restaurant Le Beccherie in Treviso, and was named after the maiden name of a daughter-in-law of a famous confectioner. Other stories place its origin in Siena, where it was created to celebrate the visit of Cosmo III. One anecdote places its origin at a brothel, where its purpose was to provide a bit of a boost to weary clientele. This may be more legend than fact, but it is certainly the most memorable.

I thought it would be interesting to apply the wonderful flavors found in tiramisu – espresso, coffee liquor, marsala, chocolate, ladyfingers, and mascarpone – to a Brandy Ball type cookie. Coffee, sugar, booze, and chocolate. Not much to go wrong there. I replaced the ground cookies in Brandy Balls with crushed savoiardi (ladyfingers); the brandy with a mix of kahlua, marsala and espresso; dusted with cocoa and sugar; and included hazelnuts as the nut.

Tiramisu Cookies

amaretti grappa balls ski holidays dolomites italiaoutdoors food and wineAnother version of this old favorite, Brandy or Rum Balls, inspired by the flavors of Italy, made from ground amaretti cookies and flavored with grappa. Amaretti cookies are traditional to Saronno, in Lombardia. Legend has it that in the early 18th century, a Milanese cardinal visited the town. A young couple created this original dessert for him, cookies made of egg whites, sugar and crushed almonds and apricot kernals. The cardinal was so pleased with the treat he blessed the couple with a long and happy marriage.

Amaretti Grappa Balls

biscotti coffee grappa custom bike tours italyChestnuts are found throughout Italy, and have been a staple of their cuisine for thousands of years. During our fall Bike the Wine Roads of Trentino-Alto Adige bike tours, chestnuts are just coming into season. We enjoy chestnuts in pasta, in risotto, in soups and desserts. In fancy ristorante, local trattorie, and sweet chocolate and chestnut treats from a roadside table we passed on a bike ride. During the holidays, when I can find chestnuts here at home, I’ve been looking forward to trying a few of these recipes. A chocolate chestnut holiday biscotti brings me back to my cycling excursion and the homemade chestnut cookie that powered me through the last few miles.

Biscotti di Marroni

cookies in tree 1 ski holidays dolomites italiaoutdoors food and wineDecorating with sweets has been a part of Italian cuisine since the 16th century. Even before this time, the shapes of breads and all the many shapes and sizes of pastas were not just random, but often created to replicate something – be it the rounded shape of panettone in honor of the church domes of Lombardy, to the scroll shaped X of  the Coppia Ferrarese breads, alluding to the adventures of the Duke of Ferrara, to the cappellacci pasta, named for their resemblance to straw hats worn at the time.

Christmas Cookie Ornaments – Almond Shortbread Cookies

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Torta di Nocciole – Hazelnut Cake from Piedmont

torta-di-nocciole-piedmont-cycling-toursLocated in the northwest corner of Italy, and isolated from much of Europe by the mountains of the Alps is the region of Piedmont. The second largest region in Italy, with it’s capital of Turin/Torino, Piedmont’s position between the sea to the south, France to the west, and Switzerland to the north, has positioned it as an important player in the transport of goods throughout history.

mountains-piedmont-italy-cycling-toursThe varied landscape of this region produces a wide array of seasonal products that contribute to Piedmont’s distinctive cuisine. Overlooked by visitors for many years, Piedmont’s culinary heritage has attracted international attention since Carlo Petrini, an activist who first rose to prominence in the 1980s for participating in the campaign against McDonald’s opening near the Spanish Steps in Rome, founded the Slow Food movement in Cuneo in 1986.

Although the terrain of Piedmont is over 40% mountains, the bucolic hills of Langhe and Monteferrato are a wonderful place for an Italy cycling tour, enjoying the local cuisine and renowned Piedmont wines as you wind your way through farmlands and vineyards, discovering small, seemingly forgotten hamlets and ancient castles.

nocciole-piedmont-cycling-toursHistorically, in the autumn the residents of the hills around Langhe would head into the woods to gather hazelnuts, which were then dried or roasted and used all year round. The local cultivar, the Tonda Gentile delle Langhe, is renowned for its quality – excellent taste and aroma after roasting, good yields after shelling, long shelf life. The ‘Nocciola del Piemonte’ (hazelnut from Piedmont), has spread across Piedmont, but is still concentrated in the provinces of Cuneo, Asti, and Alessandria, in an area between the hills of Langhe, Roero, and Monferrato. It has earned Protected Geographical Indication certification, which guarantees both quality and authenticity of this product.

logo-hazelnuts-piemonteToday, the vast majority of these prized hazelnuts are consumed by the confectionery industry – Nutella, based in Alba, alone uses 25% of the world’s production of hazelnuts. Gianduia, the first ‘Nutella’, a sweet spread of chocolate and hazelnut paste, was invented in Turin during Napoléon’s regency (1796–1814), when the Mediterranean was under a blockade by the British. Michele Prochet, a local chocolatier extended the little chocolate he had by mixing it with ground hazelnuts from the Langhe hills.

moscato-piedmont-cycling-toursAnother traditional hazelnut based dolce from the region is the torte di nocciole, A traditional cake made with roasted hazelnuts. It is often accompanied by a sweet zabaione sauce, and paired with dessert wines like the regional frizzante white wine of Moscato d’Asti, or even reds like Barolo and Barbaresco.

Torta di Nocciole

6-8 servings

2 eggs, separated
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter, room temperature
1 teaspoon grated lemon peel
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
8 ounces hazelnuts, toasted, peeled and finely chopped
1/4 cup espresso

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease and flour a 9-inch round cake pan.

Combine the butter and sugar, and beat with an electric mixer until he sugar is fully dissolved and the mixture is pale yellow. Add the egg yolks and beat for 30 seconds. Mix in the lemon peel, flour, baking powder, vanilla, hazelnuts and espresso until they form a wet dough.

In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff. Fold into the dough. Pour the dough in the prepared pan. Bake for 40 minutes, cool, and serve at room temperature.


4 egg yolks
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup Moscato wine

Fill a medium saucepan about 1/3 full with water and bring to a simmer.

In a medium metal bowl, beat the egg yolks, sugar, and wine together until smooth. Set the bowl over the simmering water and whisk until the mixture is thick, pale yellow in color, and doubled in volume, about 8-10 minutes. If the eggs appear at all to be cooking, remove from the heat.


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Exploring Castelfranco Veneto – Wine and Radicchio in an Historic Walled City

walls-of-castelfranco-bike-tours-italySurrounded by majestic medieval walls, some of the best preserved in all of Italy, the town of Castelfranco Veneto is a destination we visit often on our cycling tours in the Veneto. It’s called Castelfranco Veneto to differentiate it from other Italian towns called Castelfranco, including one in Emilia-Romagna. The town is situated between Treviso and Vicenza, and its defensive walls remind visitors of the battles between the powerful towns of Padua, Vicenza and Treviso in the 13th and 14th centuries.

castelfranco-duomo-italy-cycling-toursThe town has a small historic center,  a lovely place to wander for an hour or so, with a few sights worth visiting. The central piazza is dominated by the Duomo, designed in the eighteenth century by Francesco Maria Preti who also designed Villa Pisani at Strà, another stop on our Veneto tours. The church houses the town’s main attraction: an altarpiece by Giorgione, who was born here in Castelfranco. His works are few but very important, and renowned for their multilayered messages, including the famous Tempest in the Accademia Gallery in Venice. The altarpiece, which is located in a side chapel on the right, is one of his finest works, the Madonna with St. Francis and Liberalis, more commonly called Pala del Giorgione. In the background, the towers of the old town may be seen.

giorgione-castelfranco-italy-cycling-toursNext door to the Duomo is the Casa del Giorgione (‘House of Giorgione’). It was once claimed to be the birthplace of the artist, but there is no evidence to support this. Today it houses a nice little museum displaying a fresco attributed to Giorgione as well as informational exhibits on the local history, neighboring historical villas, and local agriculture.

radicchio-market-wine-bike-tours-umbria-copy-smallerFor a town of such a small size, you will have many options for wonderful meals. The region of Treviso is known for radicchio – on my first visits years ago I was amazed by the number of varieties and the range of flavors. Castelfranco boasts its own unique variety, the heirloom IGP Radicchio Variegato di Castelfranco. This radicchio has a distinctive appearance, creamy white and variegated, with an open rose-like shape. It has a tender, softer flavor and some claim that is it actually a hybrid of radicchio and belgian endive.

A few of my favorite dining spots in Castelfranco:

All’Antico Girone – Right behind Hotel All Torre, look to left up short alleyway after passing through city gate. Their menu focuses on traditional local dishes, with a dash of creativity. The wine list is very impressive, with a nice selection of local wines.

antico-girone-castelfranco-italy-cycling-toursOsteria ai Do Mori – Vicolo Montebelluna, 24. Good local cooking, well prepared. Seasonal menu, a lovely garden for al fresco dining under the historic walls of the city.

Feva Ristorante – Borgo Treviso 62. Very elegant dining just outside of Castelfranco. Wonderful modern interpretations of traditional dishes.

feva-castelfranco-italy-cycling-toursWith the flatter plains of the Piave river basin to the west, and the hills of Prosecco to the north, visitors to Castelfranco have an amazing variety of local wines to explore, including wines from the Prosecco, Colli Asolini e Montello, Breganze and Piave wine regions.

capo-di-stato-duomo-italy-cycling-toursCapo di Stato from Loredan Gasparini, a producer from the Colli Asolani e Montello area, is one  not to miss. In the Colli Trevigiani, the hills outside of Treviso, Gasparini has been producing quality wines from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec, where the microclimate is well-suited for the cultivation of these Bordeaux varieties. Capo di Stato is one of Gasparini’s signature wine, produced in limited quantities. The name, Capo di Stato, Head of State, refers to the wine’s well-deserved international reputation, as it was a favorite of French President Charles de Gaulle. It is a rich wine, deep garnet in color with intense dark berry nose with hints of spice. Full-bodied, well-balanced, nicely tannic with a persistent finish, this is a wine for those fans of ‘big’ reds.

wine tasting malanotte 1 wine bike tours italyAnother big red is the Piave Malanotte DOCG. This new DOCG denomination Malanotte del Piave, or Piave Malanotte, was officially established in December 2010. This wine must contain at least 70% of Raboso del Piave grapes, an indigenous varietal and up to 30% of Raboso Veronese: these varietals can be combined with up to 5% of other local red varietals. DOCG regulations dictate that between 15% and 30% of grapes must be dried before being pressed. This austere, dry wine ages for at least thirty-six months partly in barrels (at least twelve months) and partly in the bottle (at least four months), to allow the wine to reach an intense ruby reddish and purple color that tends to garnet red when aged, and its typical bouquet of spicy cherries.

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Canederli di Speck – Traditional Dumpling from Sudtirol

canederli-burro-dolomites-walking-toursIf I had to pick one dish to represent the regional cuisine of Trentino-Alto Adige or Sudtirol, canederli would be it. With it’s majestic terrain of mountains and river valleys, fascinating history as it has been caught between the Mediterranean influences to the south and Germanic peoples to the north, and over 300 days of sunshine annually, it is the perfect area to explore on a cycling tour or hiking adventure.

valsugana-bike-tour-italyCanederli dumplings, or knödel in German, are the signature dish of Tyrol. These are large dumplings made with stale bread, milk, flour and egg, and flavored with a variety of different ingredients. They are a quintessential example of the ‘cucina povera’ of Italy, creating a dish out of your leftover stale bread and flavoring it with whatever you had on hand. They can be savory, and served as a first course (Canederli in Brodo or con Burro) or as a side dish to accompany meats, like a traditional goulash. You will also see sweet versions, often stuffed with fruits or creams and served for dessert.

canederli-stuffing-ski-tours-dolomitesIn each valley they are cooked differently: in Val Passiria and Burgaviato we find varieties made with buckwheat, in the Puster Valley there are Canederli di Magro, or ‘skinny’ dumplings made without meat.  In Val Venosta they might be steamed rather than poached. Different flavoring options abound, from speck, mushrooms, cheese, spinach, to nettles, turnips and sausage. The most typical version is the one I present today, Canederli di Speck, speck being the smoked prosciutto produced here in Trentino-Alto Adige. But gourmet versions of the humble canederli abound, from beet canederli (recipe here) to canederli with fresh porcini to ones stuffed with malga or farm cheeses.

canederli-private-bike-tours I researched several recipes for canderli, and they all varied greatly as to the amount of flour used, from a couple of tablespoons to a cup or more. One recipe I translated from Italian recommended: “the bread must be perfectly dry and hard, several days old. The optimum consistency of the dough for the dumplings depends on various factors such as the size of the eggs, the type of bread, etc. So do not worry about the doses, but vary according to need.” Too much flour and they will be dense and heavy; too little, they will break apart during poaching (testing one is recommended) and they will not hold their rounded shape. So add the flour gradually, a bit at a time, and don’t feel you need to use all of it.

I provide two very typical ways of serving the canederli here – Canederli in Brodo are served in a rich beef or chicken broth, and Canederli al Burro Fuso, served in a browned butter sauce.

canederli-brodo-dolomites-walking-toursCanederli di Speck

8 ounces stale white bread, cut into 1/4 inch dice
1 1/2 cups milk
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 onion, minced
1/2 leek, minced and rinsed well
2 tablespoons fresh Italian parsley, minced
4 ounces speck, diced
2 eggs, beaten
1/4 cup to 1 cup flour, plus more for dusting
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

8 cups good beef or chicken stock

Place the bread in a large bowl and add the milk. Stir to combine, and season with salt and pepper. Allow to rest for an hour, stirring occasionally to make sure the bread is uniformly moist.

Meanwhile, melt the butter in a saute pan over medium heat. Add the onion and leek and cook until translucent and soft, about 4 minutes. Allow to cool.

After the bread mixture has rested, add the onion-leek mixture, the parsley, speck, and the eggs and thoroughly mix the ingredients with your hands, breaking up any larger pieces of bread and making sure the speck, parsley and onions are evenly distributed.

Then begin to add the flour, 1/4 cup at a time, stirring to combine everything. The final amount of flour will depend on how dry the bread is, the type of bread, the size of the eggs. It will begin as more of a batter, sticking to the sides of the bowl more than itself. It will stiffen as you add more flour, beginning to clump together in a large ball. In the end, the mixture should be uniformly moist, and still a little sticky. If it is very sticky, add a bit more flour.

Using your hands coated with flour, form the canederli by pressing the mixture into balls, about the size of a clementine. Roll each ball lightly in flour, shake off the excess and place on a sheet pan, leaving room between each so they do not stick. If they do not hold their rounded shape fairly well, and instead flatten immediately, you probably need a bit more flour.

If you have not made these before and are unsure of the consistency, you can test one at this point before forming all the dumplings. Poach the first one in a pan of boiling water for 10-12 minutes. If it does not hold together, a bit more flour might be required. This is not an exact science – make them how you like them!

When ready to serve, bring the broth or water to a simmer in a large pot. Place the canederli into the simmering liquid and poach for 12 minutes or so. They will sink to the bottom at first; stir them occasionally so they don’t stick to the bottom. Eventually they will float to the top.

For Canederli in Brodo: Spoon the canederli and broth into bowls, top with grated grana cheese and minced chives, and serve immediately. Note that the broth will be cloudy from the flour that coats the canederli. If you prefer a nice clear broth, poach them in broth or water which you then discard, and use fresh hot broth to serve.

For Canederli in Burro: Remove the canderli from the poaching liquid and keep warm. Melt 1/4 cup butter in a saute pan until brown and nutty. Place 3 canederli onto each plate, pour the browned butter over them, then sprinkle with some minced chives, grated grana cheese, and freshly ground black pepper. Or add some chopped sage when browning the butter.


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Exploring Asolo – The City of a Hundred Horizons

asolo-horizon-italy-cycling-toursOne of the things I love most about visiting Asolo during our tours is arriving with our small group of cyclists or walkers and finding ourselves totally outnumbered by locals. Especially on Sunday, when there is a steady stream of Italian cycling clubs making the climb to the Piazza Garibaldi – we blend right in, enjoying a cafe to recharge after the ascent. But unlike the cycling clubs, quickly off to complete their ride, we take some time to explore and appreciate one of the ‘hundred horizons’ that city of Asolo is known for.

cycling-club-asolo-cycling-toursA small, charming village today, during the late 15th and early 16th centuries, Asolo was a center of culture in the region. Caterina Cornaro was the queen of Cyprus until her husband died and she abdicated the throne. She sought refuge from the Republic of Venice, which in effect banished her to Asolo, where she ruled from 1489 to her death in 1510. During her reign, she established a magnificent Renaissance court in Asolo, including luminaries such as the painter Gentile Bellini and humanist Cardinal Pietro Bembo.

Caterina Cornaro’s Castle in Asolo

A stroll around the town offers many opportunities to discover yet another lovely vista as you explore a hidden alleyway. A short walk will bring you to the Rocca, a fortress built on the summit of Mount Ricco that overlooks the center of Asolo. Stop into the Cathedral to view paintings by Lorenzo Lotto and Jacopo “da Ponte” Bassano.

pizza-garibaldi-asolo-walking-toursEnjoy a prosecco at a cafe along Piazza Garibaldi, just as English poet Robert Browning, actress Elenore Duse, and explorer Freya Stark must have done during their time in Asolo, all of whom made this lovely spot their home. Asolo is in fact known for it’s local prosecco, the Colli Asolani Prosecco wine zone has earned the highest quality designation in Italy, the DOCG. Look for Bele Casel’s Gran Fondo, an unfiltered, fresh prosecco that the locals enjoy, made using the original technique of fermenting in the bottle, how prosecco was made prior to the invention of the steel vats used today.

If you’re spending more time here, and want to enjoy a more leisurely meal, there are several great options.

Hosteria Ca’ Derton – just off Piazza Garibaldi. A traditional hosteria, casual, featuring typical regional dishes like pasta with local mushrooms.

la-terrazza-asolo-walking-toursRistorante La Terrazza – located in Albergo Al Sole, you can enjoy a luxurious meal in their elegant dining room or on the terrace overlooking the city center. The best hotel in town, for those looking to stay overnight. They had Bele Casel’s Gran Fondo here during my last visit.

Ristorante Due Mori – fresh local ingredients, a wood-burning stove, and a panoramic view, a recipe for a memorable meal. Try the roast chicken.

We’re returning to Asolo in May, to watch the finish of Stage 11 of the 2016 Giro d’Italia.

Giro d’Italia 2010 in Asolo
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