Beignet means bump in French and although torta della Nonna, Tuscan panforte and Milanese panettone are at the top of my la dolce vita list, you can’t think about Italian pastries without a French twist. Like the Italian ciambella , a fried dough pastry similar to a French beignet (with a hole in it). The pasticceria of Italy were built on a long and tasty culinary relationship with the French. On one my earliest trips to Italy I learned about the culinary fusion between 16th century French and Italian pastry chefs resulting in a sweet cuisine that influenced the world of gastronomy forever after.
We joined our Milanese cousins on a visit across town to meet with friends who were entertaining us with afternoon dessert. In Italy, afternoon dessert is as traditional as English tea and we were looking forward to an assortment of homemade biscotti, slices of torta di ricotta, cannoli, perhaps even a tiramisu. We were treated to all of the above but the piece di resistance was a St. Honore cake, a dessert named for the French patron saint of bakers. It is a specialty of Italian bakeries as well as French ones. The cake is a rich combination of a pastry sponge and a thick pastry cream lightened with whipped cream or Italian meringue. The Italian variant uses Marsala wine in place of rum. Italians love this cake and serve it mostly for special occasions as it is complicated and time consuming to make. Another famous sweet found in Italian pastry shops is the Napoleon which ironically has nothing to do with Napoleon Bonaparte. The name is actually a mistranslation of the French word “Napolitain” which places its origins in Naples, a region with a culinary history of making layered confections known as mille foglie or in French mille-fueille both of which mean a thousand leaves.
This culinary cross walk between Italy and France began during the Renaissance when Tuscany’s Caterina de Medici married Henry of Orléans, the future king of France. Florentine cooks accompanied Caterina to her new home along with their secrets of Italian cooking and dining. Caterina’s influence reputedly reformed the antique style of French medieval cooking and gave rise to the science and art of cooking practiced today and the sweet and decadent desserts we all enjoy.