“Among the dishes required by tradition there are quite a fews that can be missed or replaced, as the stuffed capon with a roast turkey or the black and white crostini with butter and anchovies crostini, but what in a Christmas lunch in Siena can not be replaced in no way is the Panforte “. Giovanni Righi Parenti, La Cucina Toscana
Giovanni Righi Parenti is my reference for Tuscan and especially Sienese cooking, perhaps even more than Artusi. Probably it is the fact that when I read his pages I recognize the accent of the chatter in Piazza del Campo, probably because you can find in his book recipes that are not actual recipes, but coded daily habit… In short, I trusted him and this year I will bring to our festive table an home made Panforte. This is the perfect ending to our Tuscan Christmas lunch with Cecchi Winery, isn’t it?
Panforte is a thick and dense cake of medieval origin. At first it was made by the monks in the monasteries and given as a symbolic gift in special occasions, then passed into the hands of the apothecaries: sugar, almonds, candied fruit and spices were ingredients as precious as gold, and like gold they were kept from these figures that were a cross between an alchemist and a pharmacist, in huge glass jars on dark wooden shelves… I like to imagine their shops just like Ollivander’s shop in Diagon Alley, for those who are fans of Harry Potter.
The spices are what make it unique, a Tuscan gingerbread. Its pungent and honeyed smell is for me the true scent of Christmas, along with that of almonds and orange peel of ricciarelli.
There are numerous recipes you can find to make panforte, more or less traditional, and the same Righi Parenti reports some of them. I took the short cut, and as in the case of cavallucci and ricciarelli I went to my usual shop in Poggibonsi, I patiently stood in line behind ladies in fur coat, young women and children with their eyes bewitched by all those sweets and when my turn to speak came I whispered the usual code phrase: I’d like a dose for panforte. A few minutes later I was driving home with a paper bag full of spices and other precious ingredients that filled my car with a distinct Christmas smell.
As you can see making panforte is simple and the ingredients are quite a few and readily available. As in many traditional recipes the secret lays in the quality of the ingredients: crisp almonds that leave in your mouth a milky freshness and excellent candied fruit.
Do not trust those boxes of candied fruit that can be found around at supermarkets, with the longest list of incomprehensible ingredients and a very little fruit trace. For once, treat yourself to a few slices of perfectly candied orange and cedro peel, or if you want to be even more precise and philological, candied melon.
Panforte, a spicy Christmas cake from Siena
- 300 g of almonds
- 100 g hazelnuts
- 150 g candied orange peel
- 150 g candied citron peel
- 150 g flour
- 10 g spices for panforte*
- 150 g honey
- 150 g +icing sugar
- a sheet of thin rice paper
- Preheat oven to 180°C and toast the almonds and hazelnuts in the oven for about 15 minutes.
- In a large bowl add the toasted almonds and hazelnuts, the flour, the finely chopped orange and citron candied peel and the spices. Stir to mix.
- Line with the rice paper wafer a 18 cm round cake tin (preferably a springform tin, it will be much easier to remove the panforte once baked).
- Melt in a small saucepan over low heat the honey and the icing sugar with 3 tablespoons of water. When they are completely melted and become a thick golden syrup, remove the pan from the heat.
- Pour the syrup into the bowl with all the other ingredients and stir with a spoon to mix everything: it will be a very hard dough.
- Scoop the dough into the cake tin lined with rice paper and smooth the surface with a spoon.
- Dust the surface with icing sugar and bake for about 25 to 30 minutes, then remove the panforte from the oven, let cool slightly and then remove from the baking tin. If you wait until completely cold the caramelized sugar will stick to the tin and give you hard times - as it happened to me. If it happens, slightly warm the tin and the panforte will come out with no problems.
- Once the panforte is cold, dust generously with icing sugar.
* Panforte spices. Every apothecary has his own secret mix, this is Giovanni Righi Parenti’s proportion: 5 g of coriander seeds, 3 g of macis, 1 g of cloves, 1 g of nutmeg.
So this was the final cake, but this is not a goodbye… I’ll be back to wish you everyone a special Christmas!