Gubana: Your New Favorite Holiday Pastry

November 26, 2013

Every Tuesday, Italian expat Emiko Davies is taking us on a grand tour of Italy, showing us how to make classic, fiercely regional dishes at home. 

Today: Why you should make gubana -- a sweet, swirling nut roll from northern Italy -- for the holidays this year.

Gubana from Food52

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There's nothing like the scents of cinnamon, rum, orange zest and vanilla wafting through the house to get you in the holiday mood. And that's exactly what will happen while you're baking this sweet swirling bread, heavy with raisins, cocoa and nuts, all rolled around a delicious orange and vanilla-scented dough. 

With its characteristic snail shell-shape, the gubana is a traditional holiday treat from the very north-eastern corner of Italy in the region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, and is especially famous in the area of the town of Udine. Considering that this sliver of Italy lies along the border of Slovenia, it's not surprising that this cake has more similiarities with cousins in Croatia and Slovenia than any cakes or sweet breads in other Italian regions. 

Gubana from Food52

Take Slovenian Potica or Croatian Povitica for example -- yeasted dough is stretched paper thin (much thinner than the gubana's dough), then covered with a sweet paste made predominately from walnuts before being rolled into a log or a ring and baked. These nut rolls, as they're often known in the U.S., are also related to the Germanic Gugelhupf -- and they're also not too far removed from rugelach, either.

Despite the nearby, similar traditions, there's no doubting the fact that the gubana has long been a favorite of the area, where this usually home-baked treat is served at special, festive occasions, from weddings to Christmas. It even goes as far back as the early 1400s, when it served during a banquet for the visiting Pope Gregory VII. 

Gubana from Food52

There is a Fruiulian saying, essere pieno come una gubana -- to be as full as a gubana. And this is what differentiates this dish from its neighboring relatives, which have simpler fillings. This filling is a long list of ingredients that includes four types of nuts, raisins, cookies (or in some recipes, breadcrumbs), sweet wine, sugar and cocoa. In some cases, rum or grappa, honey and candied cedro also make an appearance. You'll only need a thin slice of this rich, satisfying treat to get you in the festive mood.

Gubana from Food52


This recipe is adapted from Italian pastry chef Luca Montersino's recipe.

For the dough:

5 cups bakers flour
10 ounces milk
1 cup sugar 
5 1/2 ounces unsalted butter
1 egg plus one extra yolk
1/2 ounce fresh yeast
1 teaspoon salt
Zest of one orange and one lemon
1 vanilla bean, split and scraped of seeds

For the filling:

8 ounces of raisins
1/4 cup moscato, marsala or any sweet wine
3 ounces peeled almonds
3 ounces walnuts
1 1/2 ounces hazelnuts
1 ounces pinenuts
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg
1 1/2 ounces butter
4 ounces plain cookies such as graham crackers, crushed
1 1/2 ounces candied orange peel
1 1/2 ounces amaretti cookies
1/4 cup bittersweet cocoa powder
Zest of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon of cinnamon

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by Emiko Davies

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The Australian-Japanese cookbook author has lived in Florence (where a visit to a cheese farm once inspired her to start a food blog) for over 10 years with her Tuscan sommelier husband and two kids. Her third cookbook, Tortellini at Midnight, is out now.


Fiorenza November 26, 2013
I'm a Friuli native and although my family never made gubana at home, it has always been a regular guest on our table during the Christmas period... my dad would usually soak his cake slice using a shot of grappa (which obviously was also on the table at the end of the meal), while children were given lukewarm milk to soak their slice with instead.
Not sure if anyone else does this, or how "traditional" it actually is, as I can't recall of ever seeing anyone else doing it... but it certainly is traditional in my family! It also somehow make sense, as more often than not store-bought gubana can be a bit dry.
I always read and love your articles and blog Emiko.
With this one you stepped into my own personal territory and you did it with the usual accuracy and well-sourced information, thank you for giving stage to our little-known but very own and very loved traditional cake. I am most definitely one of the people who would say "sono piena come una gubana" at the end of a big meal!
Cristina November 26, 2013
Grazie Emiko for sharing this recipe. As a native of Friuli I was pleasantly susprised to see our traditional cake portrayed here. I will try your version soon. Cristina

AntoniaJames November 26, 2013
Definitely must try this! What is "bakers flour"? Thank you. ;o)
Emiko November 26, 2013
Baker's flour is also known as strong flour or bread flour, it's a high protein flour with more gluten in it (making the dough more elastic than regular plain flour). If you can find flour that's meant for baking bread, pizza etc, that's the one!
AntoniaJames November 26, 2013
How well does this keep? I'm seriously thinking of sending this as a holiday treat to family out of town. I enjoyed something similar to this when traveling in that part of Italy as a young woman. The memory of it is so vivid, though I recall it being more like a strudel or pain au chocolat. I've been dreaming of making something like it for the holidays. You may very well have provided the solution. Thank you. ;o)
Emiko November 26, 2013
It keeps very well! If it's in an air tight container or wrapped well you could make it last a week. It may be a little drier around the edges but the filling keeps it moist and of course, it's great with coffee! There are relatives of this cake (like the Presnitz from Trieste) which are more like strudel with a thinner, filo-like pastry. This pastry is more like a sweet bread. Delicious!
AntoniaJames November 26, 2013
Yes, it was in Trieste! And yes, the pastry was thinner. But the flavors seem similar, with the nuts, candied fruit, spices and chocolate. Oh, this is going to be splendid. Thank you so very, very much! ;o) P.S. I'm sending this to a family of cooks, so I'll be including multiple copies of your recipe in the package! Wish I could give you a big hug . . . .