translated from Italian, is “strong bread.” It got its name for the strong
spices that are used in and, in fact, was originally called panpepato (peppered
bread) for its use of black pepper. However, it is not bread in our modern
sense, but a rich confection of nuts flavored with citrus peel and spices.
It shows up
in records as early as 1205, when it was used to pay a tax to the nuns and
monks of a monastery in Tuscany. Somewhat timely for this post, as that tax was
due on the seventh of February.
At that time,
Asian spices were brought to Europe via overland routes from India, and by sea to
Red Sea ports then to those in northern Egypt and the Levant. You can imagine
the cost this shipment incurred, and the value of a single dish that combined pepper
and citrus from southern India, cinnamon from the countries around the Bay of
Bengal, cloves and nutmeg from Indonesia, sugar from Southeast Asia, ginger
from southern China, coriander from southern Europe and southwest Asia, and
honey hard-won from country bee skeps. Over these vast distances the goods
passed through many hands with the European end of the trade dominated by the maritime
merchants of the fiercely competitive city-states of Venice, Amalfi, Pisa and
Genoa. No wonder panforte was used to pay taxes and tithes; how lucky were
those monks and nuns to be on the receiving end!
taste of panforte was in Siena, Italy, in autumn of 1992 when I was there with
my friend Marie-Lise. We had come to Italy from Paris, where she lived, to
visit Florence, Siena, and Vernazza (Cinque Terre). The weather was brisk,
often rainy, and, on more than one occasion, we took shelter in a caffè from
the cold and damp to enjoy a steaming cup of hot chocolate and a thin slice of
there are all variety of fruit cakes, fruit breads, and such around the world,
this one is a traditional Tuscan dessert. With the exception of our friend
Laura's plum puddings, panforte would be my favorite.
the nuts and citrus, it is a wintry dessert, giving rise to an association with
Christmas. Somehow, in the United States, panforte is available solely at Christmas.
What's up with that, USA? I want to change this, as a slice of panforte is good
with a hot drink on any winter day or, indeed, on any day of the year…
excepting those days prior to or following dental work.
(who provided much of the historical background for this post) and I put this
recipe together from several we found online. Mark had a specific mixture of
spices he wanted (no New World ingredients, no chocolate!), and I wanted to use
only the traditional candied citrus peel (not adding the figs and apricots belonging
in other Italian confections).
Barbara and I made our first panforte this Christmas, and both felt we hit the
nail on the head. Now that it has mellowed, she would add more pepper (she is
especially fond of panpepato); I like it as is but am not at all averse to more
pepper. Mark finds the spice blend perfect, with no one flavor dominating.
Christmas, Mark and I served it to friends from Italy, one of whom swears he
doesn't eat sweets. I had cut the slices into cookie-sized bites and, after the
first three nibbles, he was ready for more. To me, having our Italian friends
approve, is the jewel in this spicy crown.
Now, if only
the Internal Revenue Service would take panforte instead of cash...
Panforte di Siena
dark brown sugar
5 ounces flour, plus extra
mixed candied citrus peel
freshly ground black pepper
a few sheets
of wheat starch paper to line the cake pan
sugar for dusting, optional
oven to 325°F. Place the
almonds and hazelnuts on a baking sheet then toast them in the oven for 10
minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool.
the candied citrus peel ¼-inch pieces. Place the diced peel into a large glass
bowl, add cooled nuts; set aside.
In a medium
bowl, mix all the spices and the flour. Stir well so that all the spices are
evenly dispersed through the flour; set aside.
8-inch cake pan and line the bottom and sides with parchment. Cut one sheet of
wheat starch paper into an 8-inch circle and place on top of the parchment. Cut
1½-inch strips of wheat starch paper to line the sides.
Add the flour
and spice mixture to the fruit and nut mixture. Mix well, using a wooden spoon,
so that the fruit and nuts are evenly coated with the flour and spices.
sugar into the honey in a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan over low heat. Add a
tablespoon of water to help the process. When the sugar is dissolved and the
contents start to bubble around the edges of the pan, remove from the heat and
add to the fruit, nut, and spice mixture. Quickly mix everything together. If
you mix too slowly, the batter will seize up and start to solidify.
mixture into the cake pan. Press into the bottom and sides of the pan, using
the bottom of a lightly-oiled glass to even it out. Sprinkle with a generous
layer of flour. Pat down and compress a little more.
Place in oven
and bake for 35 minutes. Remove from the oven and, with a pastry brush, clean
the flour off the surface. Let the panforte cool for a few minutes, then
carefully remove from the pan.
cake on a wire rack and cool completely. Cover with foil and let it rest
overnight. Dust with powdered sugar, if you wish, then cut into thin wedges to