Food & Wine

Bologna’s Christmas Cake: Certosino

Forget Panettone and Pandoro. In Bologna, certosino is the traditional Christmas cake.

Round, dark, it’s made with honey, almonds, pine nuts, dark chocolate, candied fruits (whole pieces), cooked fruit, cinnamon, and wine syrup.

If it sounds heavy and extremely rich, well, that’s because it is! Imagine eating it after a full Christmas meal Bolognese-style, which involves tortellini, cotechino and zampone meats, and more… only for the bravest! (We’re living in la grassa after all.)

Certosino Christmas cake
The richest of Bologna’s desserts: certosino.

Certosino from Bologna: An Ancient Cake

The origins of certosino, also known as pan speziale, go back to the Middle Ages, when it was prepared by the speziali, or apothecaries, those who worked spices to make medicines and perfumes (hence, the other name is known with, pan speziale, although some say this name comes from the dialect pan spziel, i.e. pane speciale, special bread). Later, Carthusian monks in Bologna began to prepare it and that’s how it took on the name of ‘certosino’ (Carthusian monks in Italian translates as ‘frati certosini’).

In the past, housewives in Bologna began to prepare certosino even a month before Christmas because “più riposa meglio è”, the more it rests, the better it will taste.

Variations on the official recipe are plentiful depending on the household, but if you want to go with the one registered by the Accademia Italiana della Cucina (Italian Culinary Academy) at the Chamber of Commerce of Bologna in 2001 (as the Academy had previously done for tagliatelle and tortellini), you can find it below. This official recipe belongs to Atti, Bologna’s top bakery shop, which I wrote about in this blog post. In 2007, Atti won a prize awarded by the Accademia Italiana della Cucina for its certosino.

Certosino cakes on display at Atti store in Bologna
Atti’s certosino cake will make you love Bologna, or so they claim 😉

Certosino pairs well with the typical wine of the Bologna hills, Pignoletto frizzante.

Recipe for Certosino, Bologna’s Christmas cake

Ingredients

flour 350gr.

honey 300 gr.

candied fruit, whole pieces 125 gr. (orange and cedar peels, red and green cherries, red pears, figs, apricots)

fruit cooked in jam or mostarda bolognese (a jam made with quince, pears, orange peel and sugar, more on it in another post) 250 gr.

almonds 200 gr.

pine nuts 50 gr.

cocoa powder 50 gr.

pieces of dark chocolate 500 gr.

cinnamon 1 gr.

ammonium carbonate (leavening agent) 15 gr.

wine syrup or Marsala wine 75 gr.

butter 15 gr.

Preparation

Dice half of the candied fruit; heat the honey in a saucepan; when heated, add the diced candied fruit.

Place the flour on the table and, in the center, put the almonds, pine nuts, cocoa, fruit cooked in jam or mostarda, cinnamon, ammonium carbonate, wine syrup or Marsala, and the honey with candied fruit.

Knead and mold into the shape of ciambella (ring-shaped cake). Place in a buttered baking pan and leave it to rest in a warm room for 3-4 hours.

Before you put it in the oven, garnish the surface with the remaining candied fruit and some previously caramelized almonds.

Bake for 40 minutes.

When it’s cooked and cold, brush with honey previously melted over the stove.

Don’t eat it before at least ten days have passed!

Wrap in foil or parchment paper for storage.

If this sounds like too much work, here’s where you can buy certosino in Bologna (you can now find it year-round):

Atti – the descendants of the founder still manage the bakery, which won a prize for its certosino in 2007. Sold in beautiful Liberty-style boxes. Where: Via Caprarie 7 and Via Drapperie 6 (Quadrilatero area).

Bar Billi – old-school café positioned at the beginning of the uphill stretch of the Portico di San Luca. They follow a recipe dating from 1833 and their certosino is sold in typical boxes displaying the Two Towers, the Arco del Meloncello and a speziale holding the cake, so it makes for a nice souvenir/gift, like the boxes from Atti. Where: Via Pietro de Coubertin, 1, Bologna.

Gino Fabbri Pasticcere – one of Bologna’s most famous pastry chefs, winner of many prizes, Gino Fabbri’s version includes cardamom, cloves, nutmeg and star anise to add that spicy Christmas touch to it. Where: Via Cadriano, 27/2, Bologna (outside the city center).

Have you tried Certosino? Did you like it? What’s your favorite Italian Christmas cake?

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