Dicembre Dolce: Panforte di Siena

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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.

panforte

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?

panforte baking sheet edit

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.

 

Makes one 8-inch panforte

Panforte di Siena

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.

Ingredients

  • 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

Instructions

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.

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20 Responses to Dicembre Dolce: Panforte di Siena

  1. a spoonful of yumm December 12, 2011 at 1:55 pm #

    wow ! with so many ingredients, must be delish 🙂 looks gorgeous…

    • Domenica December 12, 2011 at 4:23 pm #

      Thanks, and welcome to the site. Yes, lots of ingredients but definitely worth it! Cheers

  2. Elizabeth @Mango_Queen December 12, 2011 at 4:49 pm #

    This looks so gorgeous, and I imagine unbelievably delicious. Perfect for the holidays! Thanks, Domenica!

    • Domenica December 12, 2011 at 10:55 pm #

      Thank you, Betty Ann. The real test will come when my mother tries it…

  3. Emiko December 12, 2011 at 8:46 pm #

    You’re right, tis the season for panforte! I love figs in panforte, I read they were more commonly used in Renaissance recipes for panforte too. I’m with you on the candied fruit front but I think once I tried the artisan stuff at Bizzarri, I’ve become a convert. It’s so very different from the industrial, pre-chopped supermarket candied fruit. If you do ever find candied melon, try it, it’s got an incredible texture, a bit like turkish delight! Buon natale!

    • Domenica December 12, 2011 at 10:59 pm #

      At this time of year, I really miss all those wonderful artisan Italian pasticcerie and sweet shops, especially the ones you just happen upon in small towns that have local specialities. Thanks for visiting and for your comment. Buon natale, Emiko!

  4. nancy baggett December 13, 2011 at 2:53 pm #

    Wonderful post. Wish I were there to sample! Happy holidays to you.

  5. nancy baggett December 13, 2011 at 2:54 pm #

    Wonderful post–thanks! Wish I were there to sample. Have a lovely holiday.

    • Domenica December 13, 2011 at 4:52 pm #

      Thanks, Nancy. I know that there is lots of good stuff going on in your kitchen these days. Happy holidays to you, too.

  6. elisa December 13, 2011 at 10:28 pm #

    As a true Italian I too have a reverence for panforte, actually I am just crazy about it since I was a kid! I love candied fruit too! I am happy to see your recipe! Buon Feste Domenica !!!!! I will dunk my panforte in a glass of sweet marsala!

    • Domenica December 14, 2011 at 12:52 pm #

      Panforte and sweet marsala–now that sounds delicious! Buone feste anche a te, Elisa.

  7. Joe Gray December 15, 2011 at 10:00 am #

    Domenica, I have had the little paper forms sitting in my cupboard for 3 or 4 years. Your story and beautiful photo have inspired me to finally do it this year … Oh, and would you ever share your mother’s panettone recipe?

    Joe

    • Domenica December 15, 2011 at 7:29 pm #

      Your comment makes me happy, Joe. Go for it. Making panforte is really easy, as it turns out. However, my mother will be the one to give the final verdict on 12/25. I’ll let you know how it goes. I will ask her for her panettone recipe. I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t have it. I’m going to get it from her this time when I go up to NJ (I hope she has it written down somewhere!). Cheers & buon natale.

  8. Jamie December 17, 2011 at 12:02 pm #

    All those years living in Italy and I cannot even say if I ever tasted Panforte but I have definitely been intrigued and curious. Yours looks wonderful and this is really the ideal Christmas treat! Happy Happy Holidays, Domenica, to you and yours! xo

    • Domenica December 18, 2011 at 5:42 pm #

      Thank you, Jamie. I”m glad we connected this year in the blogosphere–hope we get to do it in real life one day. Wishing you and yours a Happy Holiday & all the best in the New Year.

  9. Nancy Morena December 15, 2013 at 2:36 am #

    I actually made this panforte, and it was deliscious. I made the candied orange rind,( heavenly) added to the recipe and again it was to die for., I have to make a comment. In two panfortes, I subtituted liquid orange sugar ( left over from the candied orange peels) for the regular sugar in the recipe, and that made for a touch softer panforte, but the flavor of the candied orange rind and the sugar made it really special. I must explain myself when I made the candied peel, I used orange juice ( from the left over oranges) instead of water to candy the peel, I find that the peels were better tasting and the overall flavor was spectacular. The comments from friends that never tasted a home made panforte was that it was the best Christmas dessert they had ever had. Thumbs up to you, thank you for the recipe, and a great addition to my Christmas Desserts. PS did not use the citron, and I’m glad. Thanks again.

    • Domenica Marchetti December 10, 2014 at 6:48 pm #

      Nancy, I am only now seeing your comment ~ nearly a year to the day that you wrote it. So sorry to have missed it ~ I blame the chaos of the season. I have yet to make homemade candied orange rind, and I can only imagine how good it would be in homemade panforte. Your adaptation sounds absolutely heavenly, especially using the liquid orange sugar. Brilliant! Thanks for sharing it, and Merry Christmas (2013 AND 2014)!

  10. Adri Barr Crocetti December 11, 2014 at 9:52 am #

    Well, I had to laugh out loud about this one. Boy, talk about shared memories. “No, Mom, please no.” we’d shriek as the candied fruit made its way from our grandmother’s hands into the mixing bowl. By our standards Mom was destroying what ever treat she was making by adding those little sticky bits. I have come to realize that part of the reason was that much of the candied fruit peel available in the U.S. especially when we were kids was really dreadful. The good stuff comes from Europe, or the hands of a person who really knows how to make it.

    I have never made Panforte, but you have encouraged me to try. Thanks, Domenica for the recipe and for the laughs.

    • Domenica Marchetti December 12, 2014 at 12:29 pm #

      Adri, you know exactly what I’m talking about. The candied fruit produced here in the U.S. is pretty dreadful. I’ve updated the post and added a link to La Cuisine, a store in Alexandria, VA, that carries a nice selection of candied and dried fruits, both in the shop and online. Cheers, D

  11. Vicente September 8, 2015 at 2:04 pm #

    Sto cercando legittima il panforte di Siena in Brasile e non ho trovato. Chiedo le informazioni che è necessario per Compar lo stesso in Italia e in avanti abbinare la mia casa. Grazie

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