What Is Cavallucci?

Rebecca Cartwright

Cavallucci is a kind of Italian cookie traditionally associated with gift giving and the Christmas holidays. It is made with a honey and sugar syrup and filled with nuts and candied fruit, with a distinctive anise flavor. The name "cavallucci" means "little horses", and early versions of the cookies often featured a stamped image of a horse on top. Cavallucci do not contain shortening or eggs, so they can be stored for relatively long periods of time.

Walnuts are a common ingredient in cavallucci.
Walnuts are a common ingredient in cavallucci.

The original name for this cookie was Berriguocol. Under that name, they are recorded as part of feast day celebrations as far back as the early 1500s. The name "cavallucci" was given to them when they became a favorite of the horse-drawn cart drivers who ate them in inns along the roads they traveled. When stored, the cookies become hard. Servants and other working class people would eat the cookies, soaked in wine, as a meal.

Some cavallucci recipes call for a honey that is produced in Italy's Tuscany region.
Some cavallucci recipes call for a honey that is produced in Italy's Tuscany region.

The cookies are sometimes called cavallucci de Siena, after the city of Siena, where they are thought to have originated. It is an old Tuscan tradition to eat not just one, but two pieces of cavallucci, and one piece of panetone, a sweet yeast bread, at Christmas time. Though modern cavallucci is rarely stored until reaching extreme hardness, they are still often served with a variety of wines.

Ingredients in recipes vary, but anise seed is always used to give the cookies their unique and distinctive flavor. In some versions anise is the only spice used; in others it is combined with cinnamon, or a mixture of cinnamon, coriander and nutmeg. The cookies are hard when taken out of the oven, but soften over the next day or so until they have a chewy outside with a softer interior.

Many recipes call for the addition of honey, especially the acacia honey produced in Tuscany. The honey is mixed with sugar and water and boiled to make a syrup. Recipes excluding honey gain sweetness from using a sugar syrup. Only small amounts of honey are typically called for, about 2 tablespoons (30 ml), just enough to lend a hint of caramel flavor to the cookies.

Other common cavallucci ingredients are fruits and nuts. The fruit can be candied orange, lemon or citron or a combination of these. Walnuts are often used, but almonds may be substituted in a recipe. Italian recipes typically call for an ingredient called ammonium bicarbonate, which is also called baking ammonia. Baking soda or baking powder can be successfully substituted for the baking ammonia.

Cavallucci typically includes both fruit and nuts.
Cavallucci typically includes both fruit and nuts.

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