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Italian Table Talk: the Christmas log and a festive cardoon flan

What did you get from the Log? My granddad Remigio would ask me on every Christmas morning.

Here, in the hills between Siena and Florence, we never had a visit from Saint Lucia or Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas never brought the presents nor Baby Jesus did. It was me who put the little baby statuette on every Christmas morning in the crib of the Nativity, well cuddled by his father and mother in the hut made with pieces of acacia bark that my granddad Biagio made when dad was a child. Before any Coke commercial with a big bellied man dressed in red that influenced my dreams as a child, there was the Log, better known here as ceppo.

Cardoon flan

It is an ancient tradition that traces its origins back to the pre-Christian rituals, perhaps those of the Winter Solstice: the log, a huge piece of wood, was put in the fireplace for the family gathered for the Christmas Eve to burn slowly until the next day, or even until the New Year or the Epiphany. In some families the log was even blessed, anointed, decorated and ritually lit by the head of household.

Those were definitely other times, huge logs and massive fireplaces, where you could even sit inside. The log symbolically represents the union between two worlds, one of earth, winter, death and darkness where it’s deeply rooted and one of light, air and life where instead it stretches its branches upward. It marked the transition to the days of light and gathered around its bright and warm heart the whole family.

The log would bring gifts to children – little things, sweet dried fruit and a few toys. With the passage of time the log evolved, it was stylized or even represented by a big man with a thick and unkempt head of hair. In the various areas of Tuscany the log ritual turns into different celebrations and there you can clearly see the origins of the trimmed Christmas tree and Santa Claus, called Ceppo here. Gradually this tradition has been lost and the log extinguished giving way to a red dressed Santa Claus, who comes right from the fireplace on Christmas Eve, leaving ash traces around the gifts.

The log in the fireplace that gathers the family around the heart of the house, the Christian Christmas with Baby Jesus in the crib and the candle lit at night to illuminate the way, Christmas as a pre Christian celebration of new light: for me all these traditions come together and represent what is my Christmas, the opportunity to gather together as a family. It is true, our family is lucky enough to gather often with joy even without an official excuse, but sharing the table on Christmas Day has a special meaning, and the excitement of waking up in the morning is partially due to this, not just to the gifts waiting for you downstairs.

Cardoon flan

Since I am missing a strong and traditional Christmas dish, I went to the core of my essence of Christmas, the family. Obviously there are dishes and recipes typical of every family and every region that neatly represent what Christmas is for you. Easy theme for this month’s Italian Table Talk: Christmas is close and we could not skip this big celebration, a mile stone of the year. We started from the table to move to tradition, or backward:  Tuscan cavallucci baked by Emiko, sweet cantucci made by Jasmine and a very traditional Venetian dish, bigoli in salsa at Valeria’s table.

From the point of view of the culinary traditions, as I told you, my family has always been peculiar. My great-grandfather Tommaso was inflexible, on his Christmas table he has always wanted broth, capon braised in tomato, cardoons and cavallucci. In Siena during Christmas time you can also find panforte, panpepato and ricciarelli – soft almond cookies extremely easy to make. The smell of almonds and orange together, even in August, makes me sing Jingle bells

So as usual, I asked my grandmother which is in her opinion a typical Christmas dish in our family, something she would see on our table along with lasagne, capon and cavallucci. She enthusiastically answered: cardoon flan, how good is it? Let’s make it! As you might have realized last year, we have a fond preference for flans at Christmas, a festive side dish that plays its role next to more important main dishes and most of all can be made in advance, leaving the modern housewife free to entertain her guests while the flan is baking in the oven. In the now actual perspective of saving and recycling, the flan can be easily re heated in the evening along with other leftovers, the perfect meal to be eaten on the couch watching a Christmas movie.

Sformato di cardi

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Prep Time 30 minutes
Cook Time 1 hour 30 minutes
Total Time 2 hours
Course Side Dish
Cuisine Tuscan
Servings 6


  • 1 bunch of cardoons, about 900 g once cleaned
  • 1 lemon
  • 2 free range eggs
  • 50 g of grated cheese, aged Pecorino Toscano, aged Parmigiano Reggiano or a mix of them + a few tablespoons to sprinkle on surface
  • Breadcrumbs to dust the baking pan and sprinkle on surface
  • Butter
  • Salt

For the bechamel sauce

  • 25 g of butter
  • 30 g of flour
  • 250 ml of cold whole milk
  • Salt
  • Grated nutmeg
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  • Rinse the cardoons in water and lemon juice to prevent them form blackening, remove any leaf and peel downwards to remove the strings. Cut into large pieces and cook in boiling salted water with the juice of a lemon for about 40 minutes, until tender.
  • Drain the cardoons and sautée in a pan with a knob of butter and a few tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. This will enhance their flavour. Mash the cardoons or blend with an immersion blender or pass them through a vegetable mill: choose accordingly to the texture you like for your flan.
  • Make the béchamel sauce by melting the butter over low heat. Add the flour and stir continuously with a fork or whisk until amber coloured and toasted. Pour the milk in a thin stream, stirring constantly to prevent lumps. Stir until the sauce is thick, it will take a few minutes, then season with salt and grated nutmeg.
  • Preheat the oven to 180°C.
  • In a bowl combine cardoons, béchamel, beaten eggs and cheese and stir throughly. Season with salt if needed.
  • Butter and sprinkle with bread crumbs a ceramic baking pan (about 15 cm large and 30 cm long) and spoon the cardoon flan into it. Sprinkle the surface with breadcrumbs and grated cheese and finish with slivers of butter.
  • Bake the flan for about 50 minutes, until firm and golden.
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Find more info on cardoons here on my old post and on an interesting post on Tuscanycius.

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The Christmas log is a deeply rooted rural tradition in Tuscany, thought it can be found in similar rites throughout Italy and Europe. Traces are the English Yule log or the French buche de Noel, a dessert present on every table at Christmas. Is there something similar in your region? or which are the traditions of your Christmas? We are curious to hear your voices. The hashtag to follow the conversation on Italian Table talk on Twitter is #ITabletalk (easy, isn’t it?).

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This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. A beautiful gratin! We eat something very similar here in Geneva as cardoons are grown in this region of Switzerland.

    Those Italian cookies look divine!



  2. Delicious! I love sformati, so versatile and simple for gatherings! I love hearing about these family traditions, it truly puts me in a festive mood!

  3. I have for many years wondered what a Cardoon was. I knew it was some type of vegetable, but as we dont have them in Australia I only ever came across references to them in Italian recipes.
    Imagine my surprise then when I followed your link to the InToscana webpage with a picture of the plant…. it looks just like a Scottish thistle. Having been born in Scotland I am warmly familiar with these. I am sure they must be part of the same family like artichokes, but the Scottish ones are VERY spikey, and I have never heard of Scottish people eating them!!
    I have made cantucci regularly ( almond and orange) since first making them in Cortona in 2010, I would love to try the ricciarelli soon.

  4. I had never ever heard about the ceppo tradition before!! I asked my friend Luca from Arezzo if they have the log taking gifts, too, let see what he says 🙂 This is a true gem, a precious piece of almost lost Italian popular, folk culture –thank you for sharing it with us. What about the flan? Well, I am quite scared by cardoons, they are so hard to clean! But I might try if someone cleans them for me :)) I like baked creamy sides on Christmas time!

  5. I love reading your Italian Table Talk stories, your personal experiences and recipes. It’s so fascinating to see all the different Christmas traditions around the world! Gorgeous photography, as always!

  6. I love cardoons and luckily can find them every once in a while at my farmers’ market. I made something similar once, but yours look better and I will make this next time. Thank you!

  7. We do our cardoons breaded and fried.At the holidays I flour and bread them, and then freeze them. We have them all year long,as they come out hear in Pa. only around Thanksgiving time. Will make this also with them this year ty!

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