Panforte di Siena is a specialty of that Tuscan town, a chewy-gooey confection that tastes like Christmas even if you’ve never set foot in Italy: sweet spices and honey, candied citrus, dried fruits, almonds and hazelnuts. On the books as early as the 13th century, there are all sorts of charming tales about its supposed origins, peppered with talking cats (the Devil in disguise) and plucky nuns, and an orphan who’s rewarded for his humble kindness to the baby Jesus with a sumptuous repast of honey, fruits and nuts. With the exception of a 19th century addition of cocoa powder, the recipe for panforte (literally “strong bread” for its well-spiced flavor) doesn’t seem to have changed all that much from the Crusades 1200 to Christmas 2011.
More candy than cake (though it’s baked in a round tin and served in skinny wedges), a little goes a long way with a nip of vin santo or after-dinner espressos. Save one cake for Christmas entertaining and wrap wedges from the second in plastic wrap and pretty paper for sweet hostess gifts or treats for co-workers. Buon natale!
Panforte di Siena
adapted from Dolce Italiano by Gina DePalma, 2007; makes two thin 8″ cakes
- 3 C whole raw almonds, coarsely chopped
- 1.75 C whole hazelnuts, coarsely chopped
- generous 1/3 C candied orange peel, diced
- zest from one orange
- 6 oz dried apricots, diced
- 5 oz dried figs, diced
- 1 C all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting pans
- 1 Tbsp cocoa powder, preferably Dutch-processed
- 2 Tbsp ground cinnamon
- 1 tsp ground nutmeg
- 1/2 tsp ground cloves
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp ground pepper
- 1.75 C granulated sugar
- 1.75 C honey
- 6 Tbsp (3/4 stick or 3 oz) butter
- Powdered sugar, for dusting
- candy thermometer
- parchment paper
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Grease two 8″ pans with butter and line the bottoms with a circle of parchment paper. Grease the paper; flour the tins as you would with a cake and tap out the excess.
In a large, wide bowl add the first six ingredients; toss to combine. In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, cocoa, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, salt and pepper. Set aside.
In a medium saucepan, heat the butter, sugar and honey over medium heat, stirring with a heat-proof spatula. Clip the candy thermometer to the side of the pan and cook until the mixture reaches 217 degrees. When you reach temperature, quickly add the hot mixture to the dry mixture and stir to combine (it’s okay if you see some streaks of dry ingredients). Working quickly, add this to the nut/fruit mixture and stir until combined. Transfer to the two prepared pans and smooth out with your spatula.
Grease the bottom of a cup measure with butter and use to smush down the panforte into an even layer. Bake until the entire surface is bubbly (it will start at the edges), about 15-20 minutes (longer if you keep opening the door every five minutes, as I did). Let cool completely in the pan. Use a sharp paring knife to separate the candy from the sides of the cake pan and remove; discard the parchment. Dust the entire top with powdered sugar and serve in small wedges.
Note: the panforte will last for about 3-4 weeks. If making ahead, wait to dust with powdered sugar until serving; wrap well in parchment and again in plastic wrap. The original recipe called for 2 cups of candied orange peel, which was cost prohibitive at my market; splurge if you like (or make your own) and omit the zest.