During the fall, a visit to the market in Italy means a mood that echoes the red and yellow of the autumn leaves and the chill in the air. You see tumbling mounds of new season apples (sometimes tiny heirlooms, the size of a baby's fist), rusty-skinned pears, pumpkins, bright and tart berries, persimmons (to be eaten as they are, when plump and jammy), chestnuts, and walnuts. They provide the inspiration for seasonal sweets, like fritters dusted with powdered sugar and fruity cakes filled with ricotta.
Here are 6 Italian desserts to make right now, while fall's still here:
Pumpkin pie, Italian-style, comes in the form of this moist, pudding-like tart from Pellegrino Artusi's 1891 cookbook, the Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well. Unlike a traditional American pumpkin pie, it has no pastry base and the filling is thickened with almond meal (which makes it gluten-free). I like to sprinkle slivered almonds on top and dust with powdered sugar, but otherwise the recipe is much the same as Artusi's 125-year-old original.
Simple is best when it comes to apple desserts. You'll often find them baked whole, with butter, a bit of sugar, and some pine nuts stuffed into the apple's cavity. Similarly simple and popular are apple fritters. Found across northern Italy, these fritters are nothing more than thick slices of apple coated in batter and deep-fried until meltingly soft inside and crisp outside. They can be dusted with sugar, or eaten just as they are. And like the baked apples, they're even good cold.
Invented by the Amalfi coast's famous pastry chef, Sal di Riso, in the tiny costal town of Minori, this cake is a symbol of the area's bounty of local produce. It consists of a delicious, thin sponge cake made with ground hazelnuts, then split open and filled with a pillowy mixture of cow's milk ricotta and whipped cream, studded with cubes of poached pear. It's simple, but heavenly. Like a good tiramisu, the cake's best when it's had a day to firm up in the fridge.
This recipe is inspired by a 1960s recipe from Roman cookbook writer Ada Boni. As cakes go, this must be one of the simplest and most essential of them all. You need only three ingredients: walnuts, eggs and sugar. You can add a little lemon zest, if you like, which imparts a delicate, fresh aroma. Powdered sugar on top makes the cake pretty. Incredibly moist and quite rustic, nonna would probably leave it as it is, but you can dress it up with a feathery-light lemon buttercream frosting in the middle.
This ancient and rustic Tuscan specialty, known as castagnaccio, is made with a simple (and it just happens to be gluten-free, dairy-free, and vegan) batter of chestnut flour and water. It is synonymous with comfort food. At this time of year, it is lovingly made all over the region, both in bakeries and homes. The batter relies on chestnut flour (which is essentially just dried chestnuts ground to a very fine powder), a staple food of Tuscany's mountainous areas, for its barely-there sweetness and dense texture. Castagnaccio is often called a "cake" in English translations, but it's really more like a dense, thick crêpe.
In Italy's far north of Alto Adige, they make this dense, naturally gluten-free cake of buckwheat and ground almond meal with grated apple to keep it moist. It's sliced in half and filled with tart, jewel-red lingonberry (also known as mountain cranberries) jam and dusted with powdered sugar—perfect with a mug of caffe latte to start the day.
Tell us: What dessert do you want to make before fall's over, Italian or not?