Christmas Cravings: Siena Hits the Spot for All Things Sweet

Food & Wine Countryside Florence

Siena in Tuscany is world famous for great Christmas sweets: learn about cavallucci, panforte, ricciarelli and copate

If family ranks as first priority in Italy, there is no doubt that food follows up as a close second. And, as the holidays reach full swing, these traditions are magnified as the time spent around the table becomes the ultimate Christmas tradition. Christmas Eve, the Vigilia, consists of a robust dinner of fish that keeps family sitting – and eating- for hours. Christmas day celebrations gather la famiglia once more to fill-up stomachs with a yummy, hearty lunch. But, even if thinking of delicious Italian dishes has your mouth watering already, the ‘real deal’ is the sweets.  Milanese bring out Panettone, Veronese enjoy Pandoro, and Neapolitans savor struffoli. But, some of the longest and most delicious traditions hail from the Tuscan town of Siena. These time-tested Christmas confections will be sure to appeal to every guest at Christmas this year.



While walking the streets of Siena, keep an eye out for fairly round cookies called cavallucci. These scrumptious, rustic biscotti have a long, disputed past.  Some argue that their origins stem to the time of Lorenzo de’ Medici (1400s), while others claim they first appeared in the 16th century. However, both versions agree on one thing – that their name derives from the Italian word for horse, cavallo. Legends claim that horseman in wheeled carts would roam the countryside to deliver mail. Often, when they would stop at inns, they would break to enjoy these sweet biscotti. Eventually, locals starting calling the cookies after these horsemen, and the name stuck.

With time, the dough’s recipe has been altered; so many versions are available today.  It seems they were once made using only flour, anise seeds, several walnuts and a pinch of sugar. Modern cavallucci ingredients have expanded, calling for acacia honey, sugar, flour, chopped walnuts, toasted almonds, minced candied lemon and orange, anise, cinnamon, nutmeg, coriander powder and baking soda. Once baked, the cookies are dusted with powdered sugar. Pop open a glass of sweet dessert wine and dip these treats inside. Enjoy!


Ricciarelli are another type of Sienese biscuit. These almond-shaped, course and powdered cookies have been a holiday staple in Siena for over 700 years. Their first mention dates to the fourteenth century when a Sienese aristocrat brought back a similar recipe from the crusades.

The treats have a base of almond-paste, sugar and egg whites. To achieve the right consistency, the dough must sit for two days. They are then molded and baked. Don’t be surprised to find these treats covered in chocolate and enjoyed with a sweet dessert wine.



Be on the lookout for one of Siena’s lesser known, but by no means less tasty, Christmas delicacies: copate. This medieval recipe has had mouths watering for centuries. In stores, copate sell at a high-price and may also be labeled as cupata (from the Arabic "qubbat", which means "with almonds"). We urge you to pay the price and taste these flat, round nougat disks that were originally prepared by skilled bakers in Carmelite monasteries. The first copate were composed of a dark honey, spice and walnut brittle sandwiched between two flakey wafers. With time, egg whites were added to the brittle mixture, thus turning this once dark sweet concoction into a lighter color. Today, it is much more likely to come across the new, white version of this cherished treat.



Siena’s famed Christmas panforte is a lavish concoction of honey, spices, sugar, candied fruits and almonds. Panforte literally means "strong bread" and upon tasting this potent, spice-filled sweet, anyone can attest to its name’s origins.

Sienese claim that the dessert was created in the 1200s by the nun Suor Leta who experimented with leftover spices, almonds and sugar tucked in the back of a cabinet. Mice had eaten through the precious bag of spices brought from pilgrims passing from the Holy Land; so in order to salvage what was left, she mixed these ingredients together and put them over fire. The result was a dense, sumptuous and sweet concoction that has been satisfying sugar cravings over the centuries. However, this treat wasn’t appreciated only for it’s heavenly taste. Since the ingredients do not spoil easily, crusaders would bring panforte with them as a substitute for bread. If they were held-up in a siege, they could munch on panforte for sustenance and energy!

Panforte is easy to make. Sugar is dissolved in honey with nuts, spices and fruit. Flour is then added before cooking. Over the years, bakers would try to outdo each other by adding other ingredients like chocolate or marzipan to create the most tasty and unique twist. Today, the most popular varieties sold are Panforte Nero and Panforte Margherita. Panforte nero is dark and bitter, while Panforte Margherita is light, delicate and with confectioner’s sugar. The lighter version gained its name in 1879, when it was offered to Queen Margherita, who visited with King Umberto to see the Palio. This has become the most sought-out version.