La Pinsa Venexiana – The Original Venetian Christmas Cake

When Grandmother was young – she grew up in the northern Lagoon – this was the cake her mother prepared on 24 December, but also on the morning of Epiphany Day – January 6. So to celebrate L’EPIFANIA, and LA BEFANA, of course, we are sharing this family recipe today.

This is substantial food, so badly needed when the nights are long in late December and in January. It’s a cake that was prepared early in the morning when it was still dark. Just like it is in the pictures in this blog post.  Read More

Treating you to Venetian Hot Chocolate

It looks thick, brown and enticing. It tastes only slightly bitter and rich, velvety and dense. What’s the secret to preparing exactly this kind of cioccolata densa for which Venice has become famous in the world ? In my opinion, this is the best soul food ever invented in Venice 🙂 It has all the ingredients to get you up and about on a cold winter day.

Unlike coffee, cocoa powder arrived in Venice rather late, only in the 18th century. Yet it became hugely successful at once. It never went through the process of first being used as farmaco (medicine) and then for cooking. When Casanova was alive and Caffé Florian first opened in Piazza in 1720, hot spicy chocolate was the favorite of Venetian noblemen and the public alike. Venetians used to flavor it, adding vanilla sugar above all, to camouflage its bitter taste. And it must be the mix of sweet spices and bitter cocoa powder that won over Venetians. And we can safely say that Caffé Florian was the first cafe in Venice offering this sweet spicy chocolate variant.

Venetians became masters in creating edible works of art made from cocoa powder, both solid and liquid. If you want to see some of these masterpieces, visit Cioccolateria Vizio e Virtù, you will be marveling at their shop windows …

Flavoring hot chocolate with cardamom and cinnamon became standard in Venice in the 18th century, and a few of these recipes for spicy chocolate have survived to this day in town. One is flavoring hot chocolate with gianduia or even with pistachio paste or amaretto liquor. By the way, you can taste this amaretto-flavored chocolate at Caffé Lavena in Piazza San Marco.

Our family recipe uses milk flavored with star anise. Always for Christmas, we add home-made chocolate-cinnamon liquor.

  • Difficulty: easy
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1. To prepare two cups of hot chocolate, slowly heat, in a pan, four tablespoons of milk, three heaped teaspoons of cocoa powder and two teaspoons of corn flour (amido di mais).

2. In a second pan, heat 1/4 liter milk, one tablespoon of brown granulated cane sugar and one piece of star anise. Boil at low heat for about 10 minutes.

3. Add the cocoa mix and slowly bring all the ingredients to the boil, stirring constantly.

4. Before serving, either flavor with a few drops of essential bergamot oil or a teaspoon of chocolate liquor for each cup.

We use Majani chocolate liquor. My grandfather used to make chocolate-cinnamon liquor for Christmas, and I will share this recipe in our e-book Venice and the Moon – Befana and Epiphany Traditions – online soon 🙂

Pan del Doge al Pistacchio – Taste & Bake the Doge’s Autumn Cake


The Doges of Venice seemed to love dishes with a green touch. Even their signature dish, risi e bisi, which the Doge’s family and their entourage ate on 25 April, was green.  Risi e bisi is a rather liquid risotto (all’onda) in which the baccelli (pods) of the bisi (green peas) were cooked with the peas and rice. The Doges, just like Venetians in general, have always loved green sauces, le salse verdi. And in autumn, in particular during late October and early November, elaborate pistachio cakes were created for them and their guests.

In winter, Venetian cakes, or pan dolse (sweet breads) as they were called in the past, would be flavored with lemon or orange juice. In autumn, pomegranates and pistachios were used to flavor and color cakes. Colorful food, tinted naturally, was an essential ingredient to create a cuisine that Venice was proud of. And in spring, pink syrup made from rose petals and spices was used to flavor cakes.

Autumn is the season of almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts and pistachios in Italy, and Venice is no exception. Mele cotogne (quinces) and melograni (pomegranates) were essential ingredients in former times and still are here in Venice. Not just for cakes …

Combining these ingredients with spices when baking a cake means you will get something typical Venetian on your table. Just like in the past, the Rialto Market is still the hub where you can load up on fine produce, herbs and spices. There is also pistachio liquor and crema di pistachio, the delicious sweet pistachio cream made from Sicilian pistachios (i pistacchi di Bronte).

When you look at the vetrina (store window) of pastry stores in Venice, you often find the so-called Doge’s Cake – Pan del Doge. I can definitely say that the names cakes are given in Venice aren’t inventions of creative patissiers. On the contrary, based on family recipes and ancient recipe booklets available at the Venetian State Archive and at Biblioteca Marciana, the cakes we bake today are VERY similar to those of the past.

Which are the ingredients of pan di pistacchio? It’s rather easy to prepare, made from same dough you would use to make zaleti cookies. Substitute one third of the flour with farina di pistachio (ground pistachios), add 3 tablespoons crema di pistacchio to make the dough more soft and perhaps 2-3 tablespoons pistachio liquor.

If you are in Venice, look out for pistachio bread in Strada Nova. Pasticceria Giovanni Pitteri is an expert in making delicious pistachio cakes and zaleti, like the ones you can see in the cover page of this post. I also love the pistachio heart-shaped cookies, cuoricini al pistacchio which I discovered at Pasticceria Marchini Time. In addition to cakes and cookies, you also find torroncini and praline al pistacchio, pistachio-flavored sweet balls in Venice, enhanced with chocolate drops.

And there are the zaleti al pistacchio. Zaleti are the famous Venetian “yellow” cookies enhanced with chocolate drops and grappa-flavored raisins. Sometimes, part of the maize flour they are made from is substituted with pistachio flour and pistachio cream.

Click here to download Nonna Lina’s recipe for zaleti, including the variant zaleti al pistachio – pistachio-flavored zaleti.

You can buy the ingredients to make pan pistacchio and all the other cookies, like farina di mandorle (almond flour) and crema di pistacchio di Bronte at Drogheria Mascari, my favorite gourmet store. I discovered the torroncini al pistacchio at Pasticceria Dolce Vita at the Rialto Market.

The History of Venetian Polenta and a Sweet Market Breakfast

The first products distributed at the Rialto Market, in the 6th century AD, were bread and water. Perhaps it’s no co-incidence that on Campiello dei Meloni, in the San Polo Market area, there’s a street food bar called Acqua e Mais. The “bread” baked with maize flour was called polenta, and it comes sweet and savoury. Easy to prepare, with a thousand possibilities, just a perfect kind of cibo di strada – street food in particular in the winter.

Water and maize have been the main ingredients for bread in Venice. Every location has developed its own bread, after all. At first, I found it surprising that maize wasn’t imported in big quantities to Venice after Columbus had returned from his trip to the Americas. In fact, Venetian merchants did import a certain amount, they were too curious not to do that. They had had, however, an endemic grain variety called “grano turco” ever since … If you take a look at the ancient cookbooks, or others that I go to, such as La Cucina Tradizionale Veneta, you will find that granoturco was introduced from the Levant, probably from northern Persia, alongside with a host of other luxurious ingredients Venetians loved trading with.

So there were “yellow varieties of grain” growing in the Veneto ever since. In fact, they are still here and have been used to bake the Venetian biscuits called zaleti (yellow biscuit breads) for the explorers and merchants to remain healthy during their sea voyages.

My favorite zaléti at the Rialto Market were made by Franco Carlon, who also offered incredibly soft and tasty polenta-coconut cakelets called cestoni al cocco … but by now, these are childhood memories.

I buy Venetian farina di polenta, polenta flour, which is now produced outside Rovigo, around Treviso and Vicenza, at the Casa del Parmigiano, a deli located at the Rialto Market on Campo Bella Vienna.

As announced, a favorite autumn breakfast in my family is made from polenta. As we still get summer fruit like peaches, plums and nectarines, and also wood berries, these could become the sweet ingredient to garnish our polenta cake. Or, we also love home-made fruit gels and jam.

The other ingredient is home-made lavender syrup, from which we will make lavender icing, and to bring back summer vibes, I used some red currant gel to bake, and a few leaves of water mint and lemon balm

To prepare the pancakes, just substitute half the amount of flour with farina di polenta, polenta flour, prepare the dough with sparkling mineral water (!). Flavor with coconut sugar, cinnamon, lemon balm and water mint leaves. Pour the mixture into a pan, place a tiny spoonful of marmellata al ribes rosso, or your favorite fruit gel or jam in the center. Fry on both sides in olive oil, then garnish with cinnamon, sugar flakes, honey and a teaspoon lavender icing or syrup. Here you go 🙂

Tomorrow, we are going to take a look at our market lunch menu … we’ll start with a special creamy fall soup, based on patate americane, herbs, spices and of course, squash !