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An Italian-Texan Christmas

By Lori Grossman

For hundreds of years, immigrants have come to Texas, bringing their culture and customs with them. Spanish and German influences are pretty obvious, but Italians have made an impact, too.

It is believed that the first Italian to visit Texas was Amerigo Vespucci – the same man whose name (with a slight change in spelling) was given to the New World. In 1497, he sailed with a Spanish expedition to check out the western and northern coasts of the Gulf of Mexico. Other Italians accompanied Coronado and La Salle.

When Texas fought for independence from Mexico, Italians got involved on both sides. General Vicente Filisola was second in command to Santa Anna. Prospero Bernardi fought with the victorious Texans at San Jacinto.

Italian immigrants began arriving in Texas in the 1880s. Most settled in the Brazos River valley between Bryan and Hearne, in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, or in Galveston or Houston. In Del Rio, the Qualia family established (and still operates) the oldest licensed winery in Texas. If you've been to the Alamo, you have probably seen the work of the gifted sculptor, Pompeo Coppini. He created the moving cenotaph memorial to the heroes of the Alamo. The beautiful Littlefield Fountain on the University of Texas at Austin campus is possibly his most famous work.

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Christmas Traditions
Nativity scenes (presepios) are an important part of the holiday season. Many families build their own. A ceppo (Christmas pyramid) has three or four shelves to display sweets, candles, cards, and small presents.

An Italian Christmas dinner concludes with panettone, a sweet Christmas bread. Other treats include amaretti cookies and cannoli. Here's how to make your own.

Amaretti Cookies

Chewy, delicious almond cookies.
  • 2 cups sliced unblanched almonds
  • 3/4 cup sugar, divided
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 4 large egg yolks
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
  • 2 large eggs
  • 3 tablespoons Amaretto liqueur
  • 1 cup sliced unblanched toasted almonds, broken into small pieces
  • 1/2 cup sugar
Position the racks in the upper and lower thirds of your oven. Heat the oven to 375°F. Dab the corners of two jellyroll pans lightly with butter and line with baking parchment or waxed paper. Lightly butter the parchment or paper.

Put the almonds, 1/4 cup of the sugar, and the cinnamon in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Process until the mixture begins to clump together. This should take from 45 to 60 seconds. This is an important step; when the almonds are very finely ground, the cookie will have a chewy texture.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the egg yolks at medium speed. Increase to medium-high and beat until thickened and lightened in color, about 1-1/2 to 2 minutes. Add the remaining 1/2 cup sugar slowly, taking about 1 minute. Mix for another 30 seconds. Beat in the vanilla and almond extracts. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the almond mixture in two parts.

To make the glaze, place the eggs and the Amaretto in a low, flat dish (like a pie plate), and whisk to blend. In another low, flat dish, combine the crushed almonds and the sugar. Shape the dough into 1-inch balls. Roll each ball in the egg mixture, then in the almond-sugar mixture. Repeat the dipping procedure, then place the dough balls on the prepared pans.

Bake the cookies for about 10 minutes, or just until the bottoms are lightly browned. To ensure even browning, toward the end of the baking time, rotate the pans from top to bottom and from front to back. Do not overbake. Let sit in the pans for 4 minutes, then remove to cooling racks. The cookies can be stored in an airtight container, layered between strips of waxed paper, for up to 3 weeks, or frozen. Makes 32 cookies.


The perfect Christmas treat.

Sweet Cheese Filling

  • 2 pounds ricotta cheese
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 tablespoons candied cherries, cut into small pieces
  • 1/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips
Drain the ricotta in a colander placed over a large mixing bowl for about two hours at room temperature. Press the cheese with a spatula to release more whey. Discard the whey and transfer drained cheese from the colander to the mixing bowl.

With an electric mixer, whip the cream in a small mixing bowl until it holds stiff peaks. Set aside. Beat the sugar and vanilla into the ricotta until smooth. Fold in the whipped cream with a rubber spatula. Add the cherries and chocolate chips. Cover and chill.


  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1-1/2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons cold vegetable shortening
  • 1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons milk
  • Vegetable oil for frying
  • 1 large egg white beaten with 1 tablespoon water
To make the shells, sift the flour, sugar, and salt together into a large mixing bowl. With a pastry blender or two knives, cut in shortening until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. With a fork or your hands, mix in the milk. Continue mixing until you have a soft dough. Cut the dough in half. Roll out each half on a floured work surface to a thickness of 1/8-inch. Using a 3-1/2-inch biscuit or cookie cutter, cut out circles of dough.

Heat the oil to a depth of 4 inches in a deep saucepan or deep fryer until it registers 325°F on a candy thermometer. Wrap each dough circle around a metal cannoli tube, sealing overlapping dough with the beaten egg white. Or, place each circle in a large mesh ladle and top with a second, smaller mesh ladle to form a basket shape.

Fry in the hot oil until golden brown (about 4 minutes). Remove carefully and place on paper towels to drain and cool.

To assemble, fit a pastry bag with the largest tube or snip 1/2-inch off the corner of a resealable plastic bag. Pressing one finger over the tube opening or pinching the corner of the bag shut, spoon filling into the bag. Fill each cannoli tube or basket with the filling. Cover and refrigerate up to 1 hour or until ready to serve. Makes about 30 cannoli.

Panettone (Italian Fruit Cake)

This sweet Christmas bread dates back to the Roman Empire.
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 package active dry yeast
  • 2/3 cup lukewarm water
  • 3 egg yolks
  • Pinch of salt
  • 3-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup seedless white raisins
  • 1/2 cup raisins
  • 1/3 cup chopped mixed candied peel
  • 2 tablespoons butter, melted
Stir 1 teaspoon of the sugar and all of the yeast into the lukewarm water. Let stand for about 10 minutes, or until frothy. Beat the egg yolks in a large bowl and stir in the yeast mixture, salt, and remaining sugar. Beat in 2 cups of the flour and then gradually beat in the softened butter, a little at a time. Knead in the remaining flour to make a dough.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead well until the dough is firm and elastic. Place in a lightly buttered bowl and turn to coat completely with butter. Cover with a clean dishtowel and leave in a warm place until well risen and doubled in size.

Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead in the seedless white raisins, raisins, and candied peel. Knead until the fruit is evenly distributed. Place the dough in a buttered and floured panettone mold or other high-sided mold or baking dish (at least 6-1/2 to 7-inches tall and 7 to 8-inches wide). Cover with a clean dishtowel and let rise for 30 minutes.

Remove the towel and brush the top of the dough with some of the melted butter. Bake in a preheated oven at 400°F for 20 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 350°F and bake for an additional 20 to 30 minutes.

Remove from the pan and brush the top and sides of the panettone with the remaining melted butter. Serve warm or cold cut into thin slices. Serves 10.

Mangiare e festeggiare! (Eat and celebrate!).

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