The Sweet Life of Italian Desserts
There a few more satisfying ways to finish off a carb-loaded meal than with an exquisite tiramisu or deeply decadent cannoli. But today’s finest Italian dessert masters focus on dishes that are flavorful, light and not labor intensive.
“After you’ve eaten three courses, you want something lighter,” says pastry chef Gary Rulli, whose culinary creds are unimpeachable. A member of Italy’s prestigious Academy of Master Pastry Chefs, he makes a panettone so fine that Giada de Laurentiis featured it on her “Best Thing I Ever Ate” and Martha Stewart named it her favorite. At his original Emporio Rulli, a pastry, caffe and wine shop in Marin County, California open since 1988, and six additional locations, he’s served up thousands of Italian specialties, most priced at a reasonable $6 - 8. We checked in on what’s trending in his world:
Lighten up traditional desserts by using less alcohol, sugar and fat. Feature sorbets with fresh, seasonal fruit, or go for the unexpected, such as a gelato doused in hot coffee.
Try a different type of dessert base: Sbrisolona cookie dough (made with almonds, cornmeal and maraschino liqueur), finished off with soft cream and gelato on top; or the newly popular pistachio, paired with mascarpone (Italian cream cheese) and a flourish of decorative fresh raspberries.
Make a super cannoli - layers of fried cannoli dough filled with traditional ricotta cheese or ricotta ice cream.
Use latte di mandorle, made from scratch by soaking almonds in hot water overnight, pureed to a paste with sugar, and added to an almond crumble or strawberries, for a delicious spoon dessert. “We call it ‘milk standing up,’” says Rulli. For maximum impact, showcase this delightful dessert in a glass.
Candied chestnuts are the winter’s go-to ingredient, especially on a dessert called Monte Bianco, named after the Alps highest mountain. The variations are many – whipped cream, meringue or mousse – but the stars are the chestnuts which glisten and shine on the creamy white backdrop.
Serve traditional Italian cookies with warm zabaglione sauce (egg yolks, sugar and Marsala wine) for dipping.
Transform the traditionally cold Cassata to a baked delectable. Put ricotta cheese with pieces of chopped chocolate and orange peel in a short dough crust, bake and serve warm.
Bring the cocktail revolution to the dessert menu with liqueur cakes. Red Florentine, amaretto and maraschino are among the many liqueurs making a comeback.
Others are doing new takes on tiramisu – featuring fruits like berries, peaches or apricots; chocolate instead of coffee; gelato frozen yogurt or ice cream in place of custard. Nick Malgieri, former executive pastry chef at Windows on the World and author of "Great Italian Desserts" loves the quince and sour cherries that are part of the Italian flavor profile, but his sure-fire dessert is a simple stunner – cheesecake. Plain, easy to make, it’s a perennial pleaser that lets chefs “get back to putting a wedge of something simple on a plate rather than a dessert with 40 different elements … it’ll fly out the door,” he assures.
At the red-hot new Animale restaurant in Chicago, Chef Cameron Grant also takes a ‘less is more’ approach to making his acclaimed panna cotta. He says: “It’s a simple dish so the quality of the ingredients really matter. We use seven grams of powdered gelatin per liter of dairy, and whole vanilla pods, which are so much better than extract. I never add ingredients to the panna cotta base because it changes the desired texture … but use other components as a garnish.” The results? A panna cotta that’s justifiably called ‘perfect.’