January 9, 2019

Bologna’s Christmas Holiday Cakes

Panspeziel (left) and Certosino (right), both traditional Bolognese Christmas holiday cakes.  
While most people may be familiar with Milan’s (Italy) “Panettone” and the “Pandoro”, both golden buttery and yeasty cakes, in Bologna, we have the “Certosino” and “Panspeziel”. And while less known, once you taste these cakes you might well become addicted to them.

The “Certosino” also known as “zrtuséin” in Bolognese dialect, is Bologna’s traditional Christmas cake which contains honey, almonds, pine nuts, cocoa powder, bits of dark chocolate and candied fruit. Many people call the “Certosino” “Panspeziel” (“panspzièl” in Bolognese dialect) and while very similar, the original “Panspeziel” did not contain any cocoa or chocolate. 

In medieval times, the “panspeziel” cakes were prepared by trained apothecaries (one could also refer to them as medieval pharmacists) or “speziali” in Italian. Hence where the term bread from the speziali “panspeziel” came from. This Bolognese cake belongs in the “panforte” category as it is dense, rich with nuts and candied fruit, no yeast and needs a period to mature before it should be eaten. 

Expert “speziali” have existed since Roman times and their knowledge survived the dark period in the middle ages, thanks to the “speziali” in the convents. These clergy carefully guarded the recipes and passed on the “art of making apothecary preparations” along the church’s pilgrimage routes.

The Carthusian (Certosa in Italian) monks arrived in Bologna in 1330. The monks of the Certosa order began producing this cake and the “Panspeziel” became known as the “Certosino”. 

Although today’s “Certosino” includes chocolate and cocoa powder the original recipe did not have either of these ingredients. Cocoa was probably added to the “Certosino” after 1600, when cocoa powder became available in Europe. In wouldn’t be until 1847 when hard chocolate was invented so the dark chocolate bits in the “Certosino” are a relatively recent addition. 

The “Certosino” is not to be confused with the “Panone”, another traditional Christmas sweet cake from the Bologna area. The “panone” was probably the average person’s cake vs the “Certosino”. The original “Panone” had some ingredients in common with the “Certosino” but in smaller quantities plus the “panone” has yeast which makes it soft and cakey. A fusion definitely ocurred as nowadays many recipes for the “Panone” are indistinguishable from the “Certosino”, with the exception of the yeast. The original panone appeared as a plain dark brown cake and these days it looks like a bejewelled queen!

Although many use the terms “Certosino” and “Panspeziel” interchangeably, there is a bakery in Bologna where it is only called “panspeziel”. Curious as I am, I had to have both Billi’s pastry shop “panspeziel” and Atti bakery’s “Certosino”, one without chocolate and one with. All in the name of research!

Billi Pasticceria is located at the end of via Saragozza, right before you head up to the San Luca Sanctuary. This historic shop has been open since 1833 and have been making the “Panspeziel” ever since. This bakery’s cake is so special that it is made year round but it is also sold in thin slices, the best way to taste it! Billi’s “panspeziel” is golden in color (it has no cocoa or chocolate, hence the light color) and is soft to the bite, with the glistening candied fruit looking like jewels. The spices are perfectly balanced and with the lovely flavor of the honey and the candied fruit coming through nicely.

The Paolo Atti & Figli bakery has been operating continuously and run by the same family in Bologna since 1868. They have 2 shops in the heart of the outdoor quadrilatero market in Bologna’s historic center. Atti’s “Certosino” is rich with candied fruit, dark chocolate and cocoa powder which is why it is dark in color. Their recipe also includes honey, jam, cooked fruit, almonds and pine nuts. This cake is so good, they won the prestigious “Dino Villani” prize from the Academy of Italian Cuisine in 2007. 

The “Certosino” needs to be aged, some modern day cooks recommend at least two days of aging but it is traditional to make them well beforehand, at least by mid-November in order for your cake to be perfectly matured and delicious by Christmas morning. The aging will help the flavors intensify and heighten for a wonderful cake. 

Many people enjoy making these cakes and giving them as gifts to friends and family during the holidays. I was not able to obtain either Billi’s or Atti’s recipe, so I have included the recipe for the “Certosino” as deposited in Bologna’s Chamber of Commerce by the Academy of Italian Cuisine, Bologna Delegation on November 21, 2001. It can’t get more official than this!

Recipe for the "Certosino" Bologna's Christmas Cake 
flour 350 g,  honey 300 g, whole candied fruit 125 g (orange and citron peel, cherries, pears, figs and apricots), quince jam 250 g, unpeeled almonds 200 g, peeled almonds 50 g, pine nuts 50 g, cocoa powder 50 g, dark chocolate pieces 500 g, cinnamon 1 g, ammonia carbonate 15 g, wine or Marsala syrup 75 g, butter 15 g, 

1.    Chop half of the candied fruit into cubes,
2.    heat the honey on the fire in a saucepan and add the cut up fruit when it is hot, 
3.    place the flour on a table and form a big volcano. In the center of the flour volcano, add the unpeeled almonds, pine nuts, cocoa, the fruit jam, cinnamon, ammonia carbonate, wine syrup or marsala wine, honey with candied fruit and knead, until you get a thick mixture but not solid. 
4.    Give the mixture the shape of a large donut, put it into a mold greased with with butter and then let it rest in a warm place for at least 3-4 hours. 
5.    Before baking in preheated oven at 180 ° for 40-50 minutes, garnish the surface with the remaining candied fruit and peeled almonds.
6.    Once cooked and completely cooled, brush the cake with honey, previously liquified over heat. 
7.    Let the cake mature for at least ten days* wrapped. For optimal conservation wrap in food grade plastic paper, parchment paper or aluminum paper and keep in a cool room. 

*As always, here are my notes:
 - The cake should be served cold and preferably already cut into thin (2cm/1 inch) slices.
-  Use a cake mold with a hole in it (or you can just leave a space in the middle), about cm 25 width and 6.5 cm in height.
-  Ideally you should allow the Certosino to mature for 4-6 weeks.

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