Every year Christmas seems to arrive as a surprise, catching me half prepared; cards, sweets and decorations are never quite finished or done with that final touch I would like to give – like my good intentions to make an edible stocking for everyone!
There is one gift though that I never miss to make – panforte. The translation is “strong bread” and the name to be honest is quite literal. I would always dread at the bites that my grandmother used to give to it risking her teeth.
It is THE cake that every family in Siena eats at Christmas. In fact its first name was even “pan di Natale” or Christmas bread – so for sure you could not mistake it with Easter cake. When I was younger I used to hate it – all that spiciness and stickiness, but with age and wisdom I have learnt to appreciate it and will make sure I don’t miss it this year either. It is also the oldest cake if not of the whole Italy at least of Tuscany as it goes back to the 11th century.
Panforte went through a number of changes in its history. From a very modest cake simply made of flour, honey and dried fruits (and a bit of mould too, hence the “forte” or acid) to an upper class dessert enriched with candied lemon, orange, and melon peels, almonds and mixed spices, all of which were extravagantly expensive in that era.
My family recipe, and the one I prefer of all the different types, is the last “mutation” panforte went though. It has no candied melon and is covered with a thick layer of icing sugar instead of black pepper (hence also the name of pan pepato): “Margherita”, which was offered by the Senese people to Queen Margherita di Savoia when she visited Siena (the same queen in whose honour Neapolitans created Pizza Margherita).
What I love of this cake is not only the richness and simplicity at the same time of it, but also the fact that it is extremely easy to make. I hope you will all try it this Christmas – it makes a great gift. And it is ideal at the end of your meal with a glass of vin santo or sherry.
Ingredients to make 2 small (12 cm wide) tins of Panforte
170g caramelised citron
110 g caramelised orange
1 tbsp honey
4 tsp all spices
1 tbsp dark cocoa
1. Boil the water in a pan and add the honey and sugar until they form a froth on the surface. Don’t let it over-boil or it will evaporate and you will left with a gloopy blob.
2. Add the candied fruit, the spices, the chocolate and almonds (whole not chopped) and let the mixture simmer for about 6-7 minutes
3. Remove from the hob and let the mixture cool in a large bowl. Add to it the flour sifted and incorporate well. Set it aside while you grease a 12cm wide x 5cm tall tin
4. Pour the mix in the tins and cook in the oven (pre-heated) at 180C for 25 minutes.
5. When it is cold, sprinkle it with icing sugar.
Francesca Re Manning
Development lawyer specialising in food, Francesca Re Manning is a photographer and food writer, author of the Blog www.asaucepanandasuitcase.blogspot.com. She is Italian, has worked and lived in France, Mexico and New York, and now resides in Cambridge with her husband. Her next photo exhibition will be at the Cambridge Art Salon www.cambridgeartsalon.org.uk between 6 and 11 January 2012. You can follow Francesca on Twitter @remanningfran.