Baker Melissa Forti isn’t a household name in the United States, and I don’t know why. She’s a master of European delicacies, which she trims for the holidays with fresh spruce trimmings and an abundance of gold leaf. Her angular face, razor-straight bangs, and inquisitive eyebrows suggest a Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher who might actually stick around for more than a year. She rocks an embroidered beret like nobody’s business, she thrives in natural light (but not too much natural light…this is not a woman who bakes in a tent), and she has a religious devotion to her cat. I’m obsessed.
The Italian baker, whose intercontinental enterprises include a forthcoming Copenhagen cafe, is the author of two cookbooks including the new Melissa Forti’s Christmas Baking Book. It’s the perfect baking book for quarantine, in which home cooks have plenty of leisure to read the author’s recollections of Christmas past (“my uncle would eat a tangerine or two and throw pieces of the peel into the fireplace”) and dive deep on the history of the Torta Bonissima (it supposedly originated as a post-famine feast for “only the people who had actually helped” during hard times).
Danny Bernardini’s photographs find Forti in sumptuous setting, alone with her creations and her cat. While the recipes (divided into “large cakes & showstoppers,” “small treats, other bakes & more,” and “Christmas breads & other pastries”) look a little intimidating, with numerous names that will be mysterious to anyone who’s not fluent in Italian, the author presents each bake with an accessible introduction and describes the process in easy-to-follow fashion. Nor are the ingredients out of reach for American bakers.
My partner and I decided to try our hands (mostly hers) on Forti’s Tronchetto Di Natale Al Tiramisù — or, the text helpfully translates, a tiramisù Christmas log. I might have been in a little trouble if not for Dana’s experience at separating eggs and folding mixtures, but nothing more exotic than a fresh cranberry garnish was required to adorn our table with a flavorful roll dusted in cocoa. We added a local touch by substituting cold brew concentrate from Bizzy’s, a Minnesota coffee company, for the traditional espresso that flavors the cake.
We may only have the ambition to try one Forti creation a year, but that means we’ll have a lifetime of Italian holiday treats; this Christmas Baking Book will certainly retain a valued slot on our shelf of cookbooks. Buon Natale, Chef Melissa!