Of all the things COVID took from so many of us last year, I can’t really claim that a Christmas cake was such a big loss, but it was just another symbol of something beautiful stolen by that dreadful year. So I was determined to make Christmas work no matter what: for my kids, for myself, and for my mother-in-law. And I would start by making pandolce.
This compact cake studded with fruit and pine nuts is obligatory in and around Genoa during the holiday season, much like panettone is in Milan. And, like panettone, almost no one makes pandolce at home. Instead, the cakes are bought from the city’s many pasticcerie (pastry shops), where they are stacked high on top of display cases, wrapped in colorful paper, and tied with silk ribbon.
According to legend, pandolce was invented during a contest among the city’s pastry chefs in the 16th century, when the Doge challenged them to create a dessert representative of Genoa’s wealth and grandeur. Traditionally, before being served, a sprig of bay leaves is stuck into the middle of the cake and then brought to the table by the youngest member of the family. The oldest at the table would cut the first slice, wrap it in a napkin, and give it to the first passing alms-seeker.
Note: Orange flower water, a distillate made from bitter orange blossoms, has been produced in Liguria for centuries and shows up in many local sweets. Look for it online or in specialty food shops, or substitute with ½ teaspoon finely grated orange zest.
Test Kitchen Notes
Excerpted with permission from Liguria: The Cookbook: Recipes from the Italian Riviera by Laurel Evans. © 2021 by Laurel Evans. Excerpted by permission of Rizzoli.
- Prep time 15 minutes
- Cook time 45 minutes
- makes One 9-inch cake
2 1/3 cups
(10½ ounces) all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
unsalted butter, at room temperature
Seeds from 1⁄2 of a vanilla bean
orange flower water
(1½ ounces) pine nuts
fennel seeds or aniseeds
finely chopped candied orange peel
1 1/2 cups
(8 ounces) raisins
- Heat the oven to 350°F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper; set aside.
- In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt; set aside.
- In a large bowl, beat together butter, sugar, and vanilla until creamy. Add the egg and beat on high speed until fluffy. Slowly beat in the milk and orange flower water until combined. Stir in the pine nuts, fennel seeds, candied orange peel, and raisins.
- Slowly add the flour mixture to the egg mixture and stir to combine, but do not overmix. The mixture will be dense and you might need to use your hands to incorporate all the flour.
- Turn the dough out onto a work surface lightly dusted with flour. Shape the dough into a smooth ball and transfer to the prepared baking sheet. Press gently to flatten slightly. Score a large triangle shape on the surface of the dough (this traditionally represents the Holy Trinity).
- Cook until golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean, 35 to 45 minutes. Let cool before serving.