The devil made me do it. No, not really, but supposedly a nun in Medieval Italy claimed that the devil in the form of a black cat tried to convince her to taste a fruit and nut concoction she was making, and that’s just one of the legends behind this Italian tradition, a delicious treat from Siena. The name translates “strong bread,” though it’s not really a cake or a bread, but a dense fruit and nut confection with only a small amount of flour. The dessert is very popular in Siena during the Christmas season, and I would love to be there to see the bakery displays of the beautiful panforti.
I made this one on Saturday, and the whole time I had my paternal grandmother in mind. I grew up with strong memories of her in the kitchen making all kinds of goodies. Food was how she entertained, and both my grandmother and grandfather had a sweet tooth. The table was always loaded at meals and the array of desserts and treats was enough to make my child’s eyes wide as saucers. She made several fruit cakes every year, the first of which went out with the men during hunting season, and then she made more for Thanksgiving and Christmas along with her applesauce cake and coconut cake. She even made one to send home with us every year, and Mom put it into the freezer so Dad could enjoy a piece whenever he wanted a taste of Grandma’s cooking. Her fruit cake recipe has several pounds of nuts and fruit as well as flour, eggs, and leavening. Grandma was a Southern Baptist Sunday School teacher for many years, so no alcohol went into her recipe, and that’s how Dad likes them. She always stored them in a cool place wrapped in wax paper and foil (though later she used plastic wrap) and they kept for several weeks.
I’ve never made my grandmother’s fruit cake, but somehow in making this panforte I felt that I was paying homage to my grandmother and the joy she brought everyone with all of her baking. I was also paying homage to Michael’s Italian ancestors.
The dessert is not difficult to make, though chopping all the fruit and nuts takes a little time. I searched many grocery stores in my area, but I simply could not find candied orange peel anywhere. Online searches yielded results, but it was quite spendy, so I decided I could make my own a whole lot cheaper, even it if meant taking some extra time. I found several good recipes online that I have listed in the Resources below, and I chose to make Jen’s recipe at Use Real Butter. It worked well, though the peels still had a touch of bitterness, but I think I just need to perfect my technique. Since I made the orange peel a full week before I needed it, I stored all the peels in sugar in a Mason jar and then used some of that orange-infused sugar in the panforte. The decadent orange taste and perfume permeated the dessert and played well with all the spices.
The recipe calls for blanched almonds, and I did soak them in boiling water for a minute or so, but the skins were not slipping off as easily as I wanted them to. After struggling with the skins and a paring knife, I finally decided to skip that step, as I had done with the Florentines, and just left the skins on. I did not have a dark nonstick cake pan, so I used a 9.5-inch nonstick springform, and I was very pleased with how easily the cake released and particularly happy that none of it ran out the bottom! I ran a thin plastic knife around the sides just before popping the latch, and the panforte came right out.
The recipe comes from Gina DePalma’s new cookbook Dolce Italiano: Desserts from the Babbo Kitchen, and I’m sending a big thanks to Ilva for turning me on to Gina’s book. Her recipe uses chocolate like a Panforte Nero, but instead of melting baking chocolate into the sugar and honey, she uses Dutch-processed cocoa and tosses it with the fruit and nuts along with all the other dry ingredients. The cocoa flavor does not overwhelm and is more of an aside than a predominate flavor. The only thing that confused me was the instructions about baking, which says to bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until the entire surface is bubbling. After 20 minutes there was no bubbling, and I wasn’t sure which was the priority–time or bubbling! So I let it go a little longer to see if anything would bubble, which took about another 10 minutes. The edges got a little hard, harder than they should have been, I think. The rest of the dessert was gooey and wonderful.
The panforte is studded with fruit and nuts throughout and looks beautiful when you turn it out of the pan. Because it is so rich, you can easily get 16 servings out of the recipe. I was dying over the smell and fell in love with the flavor and texture. We will definitely have this for future Christmas celebrations, and I will think of my grandmother with each bite.
Because making this confection reminded me so much of my grandmother’s fruit cakes and all her holiday baking, I am submitting this to Apples & Thyme, an event that celebrates time in the kitchen with our mothers and grandmothers. Visit Vanielje Kitchen and Passionate Palate to read the beautiful stories from the November and December round-ups.
PANFORTE DI SIENNA (ITALIAN FRUIT CAKE)
Adapted from Dolce Italiano: Desserts from the Babbo Kitchen, by Gina DePalma.
9 x 2-inch heavy nonstick cake or springform pan
medium sauce pan
3 cups whole blanched almonds, roughly chopped
1 ¾ cups whole hazelnuts, skinned or unskinned, roughly chopped
2 cups diced candied orange peel
6 ounces dried apricots, diced
5 ounces dried figs, diced
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon Dutch-processed cocoa powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 ¾ cups granulated sugar (I used part orange sugar and part regular sugar.)
1 ¾ cups honey
6 tablespoons (3 ounces) unsalted butter
Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting
1. Position the rack in the middle of the oven and preheat oven to 325° F. Coat the pan with cooking spray, then lay a round of parchment in the bottom, and then coat the top of the parchment with cooking spray. Dust flour all the way around the sides and the bottom and tap out any extra. The panforte will be very sticky, so you want the pan to be well-prepared.
2. In the large bowl, toss together prepared almonds, hazelnuts, figs, apricots, and orange peels.
3. In the medium bowl, whisk together the flour, cinnamon, cocoa powder, salt, nutmeg, cloves, and ground pepper. Make sure all the dry ingredients are thoroughly combined. Add the dry ingredients to the fruit and nuts and toss together until everything is thoroughly coated.
4. In the medium sauce pan with the candy thermometer attached, add the sugar, honey and butter and cook over medium heat until the temperature reaches 217° F. Remove the pan from the heat and remove the candy thermometer. Quickly pour the sugar mixture over the fruit and nuts mixture and stir together with a nonstick spatula until everything is thoroughly coated.
5. Pour into the prepared baking pan and spread the mixture around evenly.
6. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until the surface is bubbly. Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely in the pan on a wire rack.
7. To serve, dust with powdered sugar and cut into thin slices. Wrap in parchment and plastic wrap to store.