For most of my life—right up until last week—I despised panforte, the celebrated Christmas fruit-and-nut confection from Siena.
Every year at about this time, a flat, sort-of circular pleated package containing a dense hockey puck of a—what? Was it a cake? a torte? candy?—would appear on our buffet, purchased by my mother. She would unwrap it, lay it lovingly on a plate, and take in its medieval spicy, nutty, fruity scent. Then, using a large, sharp knife—and all her might—she would hack out a thin, sticky wedge and offer it around.
No thanks, said my sister and me, turning our heads in aversion and making gagging gestures. We hated, and I mean hated, candied fruit, especially candied citron, which as far as we could tell comprised at least 60 percent of panforte, the rest consisting of big pieces of nuts and chunks of dried fruit. Why, we reasoned, would we ever waste precious Christmas calories on that stuff when we could be stuffing our faces with gingerbread, sparkly sugar cookies, or buttery crescents?
Our mother, however, adored candied fruit, and put it in just about everything she made at Christmastime—her homemade panettone, her ricotta cake, her cannoli—even though we implored her not to. Nothing destroyed good cannoli, in my opinion, like those intrusive, sticky, grainy bits. She would try to trick us by mincing the candied fruit finely and then telling us she had left it out. But we always knew.
To our mother, a slice of panforte was a slice of heaven. To my sister and me, it was all of our least favorite baking ingredients rolled into one.
So imagine my surprise (horror, even) when I found myself in my kitchen the other day, actually making panforte. What happened? I honestly don’t know. Possibly age (sticky fruit and nuts get to be more appealing as time goes by), probably nostalgia.
Also, I cannot deny the fact that panforte has a long and impressive history dating back to the 13th Century (maybe earlier), when, according to some accounts, the good people of Siena offered it as a form of tax payment to the local monks. It was considered an extravagant dessert for its abundant use of expensive spices, including coriander, cloves, and white pepper. In 1879, a somewhat lighter version was created for Queen Margherita. There are many variations, with a changing mix of fruits and nuts and spices. What hasn’t changed is Italians’ reverence for it.
Let’s face it: if something has stuck around (literally) for more than 800 years, who am I to dismiss it?
I read through a recipe in Gingerbread, a gem of a cookbook by Jennifer Lindner McGlinn, an accomplished pastry chef and friend of mine. As I went through the list of ingredients, I realized I liked just about all of them—ginger, cloves, allspice, toasted hazelnuts, dried apricots, even candied orange peel*—all except for the candied citron (there never will be any changing my mind on that one).
I remembered that my friend Diane Morgan had included a recipe for panforte in her book Gifts Cooks Love (a great resource for all you DIY holiday gift givers). Diane’s ingredient list included dried mission figs, a container of which I happened to have on my kitchen counter, and a little unsweetened cocoa, which really appealed to me. Between those two recipes, I came up with one that—lo and behold, it was a Christmas miracle—quickly made me an convert. The real test, though, will come on December 25, when my mom unwraps a certain flat, round, and rather heavy package.
* ADDENDUM 12/12/14: It’s hard to find decent candied fruit in the U.S. I buy candied orange peel at La Cuisine, in Alexandria, VA. The shop also has a really nice selection of other candied and glacé fruits from Europe, all available for online purchase.
Adapted from Gingerbread, by Jennifer Lindner McGlinn, with a little help from Gifts Cooks Love, by Diane Morgan
Like other dense, fruit- and nut-filled cakes, panforte get better as it hangs around. Make it ahead of time, wrap it tightly in plastic wrap, and store it in a cool place or in the refrigerator, for several days and up to a month. Feel free to adapt this recipe to your liking, substituting your favorite dried fruits, nuts, and spices. Jennifer's recipe calls for a nonstick 8-inch springform pan. Mine is not nonstick, but I buttered it generously and had no trouble removing the baked panforte.
- Butter for greasing the pan
- 3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
- 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
- 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1 cup almonds (skins on or off ), toasted and coarsely chopped
- 1/2 cup hazelnuts, toasted, skinned, and coarsely chopped
- 1/2 cup walnuts, toasted and coarsely chopped
- 1/2 cup lightly packed dried pitted apricots, coarsely chopped
- 1/2 cup lightly packed dried mission figs, coarsely chopped
- 3/4 cup dried cranberries
- 1/2 cup dark raisins
- 1/2 cup sultanas (golden raisins)
- 1/4 cup chopped candied orange peel
- 2 tablespoons candied citron (use at your own peril!)
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 3/4 cup honey
- 1/4 cup water
- Confectioners' sugar for dusting
Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat the oven to 300 degrees F. Generously butter an 8-by-2-inch springform pan and line the bottom with parchment paper. Generously butter the parchment paper.
Whisk together the flour, cocoa, salt, cinnamon, ginger, coriander, allspice, and cloves in a large bowl. Add the almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, dried apricots, raisins and sultanas, dried cranberries, and the candied orange peel (and citron if you dare). Stir well to coat everything evenly with the dry ingredients.
Combine the sugar, honey, and water in a small saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the sugar and honey have dissolved. Bring to a boil, place a candy thermometer in the mixture, and continue to cook, without stirring, to 238 degrees F (soft-ball stage), 10 to 15 minutes.
Remove the cooked sugar from the heat, immediately pour it over the nut and fruit mixture, and stir until the ingredients are well combined. The batter will be very sticky and thick.
Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and, using a heatproof spatula or your fingers, spread it evenly in the pan, pressing firmly. (If you use your fingers, you might want to wet them with cold water before you start spreading the dough to prevent them from sticking.) Wrap the pan with a parchment collar that rises about 3 inches above the pan and secure with kitchen twine. (I admit: I omitted this last step of wrapping the pan in parchment. I suspect its purpose is to prevent the fruit and nuts on the surface of the cake to brown and harden too much, but mine seemed to turn out OK.)
Set the pan on a baking sheet and bake the panforte for 1 hour to 1 hour and 10 minutes, or until it is puffed and dark golden brown. Set the panforte on a wire rack to cool completely in the pan. When it has cooled, carefully remove the sides of the springform pan and slide the panforte off the bottom of the pan. (I ended up inverting the panforte and gently prying off the bottom of the pan.)
Dust the panforte with confectioners' sugar and cut it into thin wedges if serving immediately. Alternatively, omit the dusting of sugar, keep the panforte whole, and store it for at least several days, as it improves with age. To store the panforte for more than a few days, wrap it in plastic wrap and set it in a cool area or in the refrigerator for at least 3 days and up to 1 month. Dust with confectioners' sugar before serving.