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If you visit any pastry shop in Italy, especially on a Sunday morning, you'll see an astonishing variety of mouth-watering delights, everything from pasticceria minuta (bite-sized cookies, pastries, cream puffs and so on) to pastine (portion-sized pastries, either individual, e.g. babá, or slices of a larger cake such as a millefoglie) to full-fledged cakes and pies, for example fresh fruit crostata, torta alle mele (apple pie), or polenta con gli osei. Even simple things such as schiacciata alla fiorentina, Florence's traditional pre-Easter cake, are proudly displayed.

The reason for all this bounty, and that pastry shops are almost as common as bread bakeries, is that Italians don't do much baking at home. In the past because fuel was expensive and many didn't have ovens, and now because baking an involved, elaborate dessert takes more time than most people have. So come time for the festive dinner the roast or lasagna goes into the oven while somebody visits the pasticceria. If it's a dinner among friends it's usually one of the guests to make the visit, because it's bad form to arrive empty handed (wine, sparkling or still, is another common gift).

There is another option in addition to cakes and pastries, however: Dolci al cucchiaio, desserts to be eaten with a spoon. The simplest is mousse (the Italians have borrowed the French name), which roughly translates as custard. Then there are budini, in which the liquid is thickened by the addition of a starch; they vary considerably in texture and appearance, from custards one can eat with a spoon to more solid concoctions better suited to a fork. There are also semifreddi, which are generally made by lining a mold with pan di spagna or savoiardi (cookies similar to ladyfingers), filling it with cream or ice cream and other ingredients, and chilling the whole thing -- cassata alla siciliana come sot mind, as does zuccotto and tiramisu. There's something for every occasion, from the simplest get together to the most elegant meal.

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Buon Appetito!
Kyle Phillips

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