How to induce the perfect panforte

The Tuscan alternative to panettone is a solid wedge of dried fruits and nuts, heavy with medieval spice and glued together with molten sugar

Hand on heart, have you ever been truly pleased to receive a panettone, the gargantuan gift that promises so much, with its impressive circumference and deliciously elaborated packaging, yet delivers so little in the eating. No wonder most of them seem to get passed on almost immediately, or quietly recycled into bread and butter puddings.

So, if you’re buying, mine’s a panforte, the Tuscan treat that, as its name suggests, is far stronger meat: a solid wedge of dried fruit and nuts, heavy with medieval spice and glued along with molten sugar. Perfect fuel for cycling up those relentlessly picturesque hills, as I detected the summer months, and- as I’ve procured more recently- even better for putting you into a pleasant sugar coma on the sofa, as the dog finishes the sherry.

Nigel Slater’s lovely new volume, The Christmas Chronicles, may claim that it’s not worth inducing yourself, given that” the stuff in the shops, straight-out from Siena, is what the Italians eat. And if it’s good enough for them …”, but in my experience the ones that make it over here are a dental emergency waiting to happen( not ideal on a national holiday) whereas one of the joy of fresh panforte is its surprisingly yielding texture, as well as the fact that you can set whatever you like in there, from chocolate to cherries.

Emiko
Emiko Davies recommends dried figs. Photo: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian

Unlike panettone, it’s easy to make at home, maintains well and, wrap in approximately a tenth of the paper, might actually construct that luck someone happy. And if not- well, at least you’ll be pleased to get onto back.

The fruit

Though it’s often described as the Tuscan equivalent of fruitcake, most panforte recipes contain none of the vine fruits familiar from our own Christmas baking, instead relying on candied citrus, melon and even pumpkin. Unfortunately, it proves impossible to find anything more exotic than candied orange, lemon and citron peel here; clearly I should have thought ahead and made my own, but if you too have failed to stock the pantry with such everyday delicacies, you might prefer to substitute dried figs for some of the weight, as Florentine food writer Emiko Davies recommends.

Even decent candied peel isn’t that easy to track down: the slightly greasy chopped mixed assortment can’t compete with the crystallised half moons I find in an Italian grocers, or the gorgeous whole fruit I happened across at a market stall in Cambridge a few weeks ago, but good stuff is available online, too.

Gaitri
Gaitri Pagrach-Chandra adds non-traditional apricots and cranberries. Photograph: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian

Gaitri Pagrach-Chandra ‘ s delightfully maverick recipe in her book Sugar& Spice hurls tradition to the wind and adds dried apricots and cranberries to the mix, which looks very pretty, but would probably bring together Siena’s rival contrade to chase her out of the city. Far be it from me to recommend such heresies, but, as I say, one of the joy of inducing your own anything is that you can put whatever the hell you like in there. It’s Christmas , normal rules don’t apply.

The nuts

Davies informs me that almonds are the traditional option of nut for a panforte, and indeed, almost every recipe I try calls for them, with Nigella Lawson using both skin-on and blanched versions in the recipe in Nigella’s Christmas. Alvaro Maccioni, who, as a native of the region, feelings he has the right to disclose” one of the most closely guarded secrets of Siena”, also adds walnuts and hazelnuts, blanched, peeled, toasted and ground( although, as the picture in his book, Mamma Toscana, seem to be feature whole almonds, I don’t grind them too finely ), and Pagrach-Chandra chucks in pistachios for good measure. My team of testers approve of the contrast in texture of the different nuts, and the slight bitterness that walnuts in particular add, although I’ll let almonds predominate because they give the most crunch, grinding some of them to soften the texture of the concoction itself and give the whole thing a nuttier flavour. Blanching feels an unnecessary faff, though; a bit of scalp isn’t the thing that will kill you here.

Nigella
Nigella Lawson use white pepper to spice her panforte. Photo: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian

The spice

One of the things that builds panforte more than just another ” energy ball” of dried fruit and nuts is bold spicing, a nod to its medieval roots when a heavy hand with the imported pepper was a sign of seasonal largesse- much like our own willingness to pay PS150 for an advent calendar full of tiny bottles of whisky, just because it’s Christmas. Everyone uses cinnamon, and cloves and nutmeg are also very common, but I’m more interested in the spices that have been largely fell from British festive baking: Maccioni’s and Lawson’s white pepper, Tuscan blogger Alice del Re’s black pepper, Maccioni and del Re’s coriander and Pagrach-Chandra’s cardamom.

Food writer David Lebovitz writes intriguingly in his blog entry on the subject:” I’ve been told that Italians in some regions don’t use black pepper because it was imported, and they were upset with the people who supervised the ports who long-ago heavily taxed imported goods. Hence folks started using red pepper, which could be grown right in their own yards and didn’t need to use the pricey black pepper .” A little extra cayenne does indeed make Maccioni’s version extra spicy, so if you want something to get the party started, a generous whack of red or black pepper will have everyone reaching for a beverage, although I guess the delicate flavour of white pepper offers a more harmonious heat. The still exotic flavor of coriander also demonstrates popular, although if you would prefer a milder outcome, feel free to stick with the sweeter spices that may well appeal more to younger palates.

Alvaro
Alvaro Maccioni’s panforte includes walnuts and hazelnuts. Photo: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian

The chocolate

Traditionally, panforte seems to fall into one of two categories: the dark kind, coloured with black candied melon( which Davies can’t find even in Florence ), pepper, and later, cocoa, and the paler, more delicate kind, named after the same Queen Margherita who inspired the pizza, built with citron, vanilla and icing sugar. Many modern versions seem to be a hybrid of both, with Maccioni employing drinking chocolate, and Lawson, Davies and del Re cocoa powder, although the last two merely sprinkle it on top. Testers like the slight bitterness of the chocolate with the figs, as well as the rich colour it gives the cake itself, so I’ll be stirring it into the mixture.

Pagrach-Chandra gives a” quick and simple recipe … a cheat’s take over the original”, which needs no baking. Instead, the dried fruit and nuts are held together with melted chocolate, which makes it more like a very fancy fridge cake. Lovely, of course, but proudly inauthentic.

Alice
Alice del Re prefers black pepper and cocoa. Photo: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian

The sweetener

Everyone but Davies uses honey in their recipes- indeed, Pagrach-Chandra’s has no other sweetener- although most combine it with white or icing sugar as well. Not only does honey add flavour, but it seems to give the concoction a softer, less brittle consistency; for maximum gooey glueyness, the sugars should be heated until they reach” soft ball” stage at about 115 C.

Flour and fat

The amount of flour used in recipes varies wildly: Maccioni only puts in a tablespoon, while Davies and del Re use 10 days that. The more you add, it seems, the firmer and more uniform the consistency, which fits with what I remember eating in the region, admittedly from the back of my jersey pocket and thus somewhat warmed from the sun and my exertions.

Lawson is the only one to add fat to her recipe in the form of a couple of tablespoons of melted butter; not much admittedly, but it does help to give her panforte a squidgy texture that proves popular with some testers, although the more classic chewy variety wins the vote.

Baking

Panforte should be cooked at a fairly gentle heat until simply firm, rather than boulder hard, in- I cannot stress this enough- a well-greased and lined tins: something with a removable base, I detect, constructs the disgorging process much easier. It’s also worth attempting out edible rice paper, translated in some recipes instead wonderfully as “host” or communion wafer, but more often may be in prosaic sheets in cookery stores, which not only offers maximum “authenticity” but also disproves the need to fight with sticky greaseproof newspaper or foil.

The
The perfect panforte. Photo: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian

Perfect panforte

( Makes 1 x 20 cm cake )
Rice paper
250g almonds
100g walnuts
100g soft dried figs
150g candied lemon and orange peel
150g plain flour
1 tbsp cocoa powder
1 tsp cinnamon
1/ 2 tsp nutmeg
1/ 2 tsp ground white pepper
1/ 2 tsp coriander seeds, ground
1/ 2 tsp cloves, ground
150g white sugar
150g runny honey
Icing sugar, to serve

Heat the oven to 200 C/ 400 F/ gas mark 6. Generously grease a 20 cm cake tin with a removable base and line the bottom with rice or greaseproof paper. Set the nuts on a baking tray and toast for five minutes, then allow to cool somewhat, turning the oven down to 160 C/ 320 F/ gas mark 3. Tip a third into a food processor and approximately grind into small pieces( or smash to a rubble in a pestle and mortar) and very coarsely chop the rest.

Roughly chop the figs and the peel( if necessary ). Set the flour, cocoa and spices into a large heatproof mixing bowl, whisk to combining and stir in the fruit and both lots of nuts.

Put the white sugar and honey into a medium pan and gently hot until it reaches 115 C, or until a little dropped into cold water forms a ball when squidged between thumb and thumb. Immediately stir into the other ingredients until well combined, then rub into the prepared tin and press down with wet hands. Bake for about 30 minutes until only firm, then allow to cool before turning out and sprinkling with icing sugar.

Panforte: panettone’s darker, and far more interesting cousin, or something that savor endlessly better on holiday? Which other lesser-known festive sweets are worth attempting out, or indeed making at home? And … does anyone actually like panettone ?

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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