Panforte – A Legendary Gift
The holiday season is here. The hot and humid “I can’t bear to turn on the oven” days have been replaced with a wintry mix, and our thoughts turn to “what can I bake to share with friends and family?” Many of you have made panettone, fruitcake, figgy pudding, honey cakes, Lebkuchen, and other holiday confections. But, have you ever tackled panforte? If not, you’re in for a treat. The cake is steeped in legend and virtuous attainment, endowed with magical properties since the 14th century. Making panforte isn’t difficult, but top-notch ingredients and a good sense of timing are requisites. The result just tastes so good and lasts so long in the dark period after the holidays that you’ll swear some of those magical powers have endured into the 21st century.
The Best Of All Possible Power Bars
The name “panforte” derives from its forebears dating back to the 13th Century – panes melatos, a focaccia enriched with honey, figs, and grapes. When fresh, it was savory, but after a few days, it turned sour and developed an intense taste. Hence the name panis fortis or pane forte for “strong or sour bread.” Honey was added to the mix, contributing its natural antibacterial properties and a long shelf life, making pane forte the “go-to” road-food for the Crusaders — their version of a power bar. Read about the history of foccacia in this previous Juicy Post while you are waiting for your panforte to come out of the oven
The Siena Connection
A bread of many names, panforte was also once pan pepato — when pepper was the flavoring agent. Then Siena, an important spice trading center during the Middle Ages, got into the act. The robust Sienese spice trade added ginger, cloves, coriander, and cinnamon to the batter, making it more exotic and increasingly expensive. Panforte became a privilege enjoyed by the nobility and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. The earliest accounts from the Abbey in Montecelso near Siena show that cakes of panforte (panes melati et pepati) were paid to the monks and nuns as a tax or tithe.
In researching panforte recipes one can burrow into a rabbit hole of choices. One legend says that panforte should contain 17 ingredients: one for each of the 17 neighborhoods or Contrade in the city of Siena. It became a trademark cake of spice sellers, who were the pharmacists of the day. Today, every Siennese pastry shop has its own variation of ingredients. Italian imagination takes over, but however the elements are assembled, the result remains a dense mixture of honey, spices, candied fruits, almonds, and hazelnuts liberally dusted with vanilla scented powdered sugar and occasionally a layer of marzipan. Now Panforte di Siena is a PGI (Protectect Geographical Indication) certified product. It is not allowed to contain additives, colorants, or preservatives, so that is the designation you should look for when you want to purchase the genuine article.
History and Legend Distinctively Packaged
Panforte Nero (panpepato) is the oldest version and is made with cocoa and dark chocolate and candied fruit — especially melon. The spices are pronounced, including a good measure of pepper. Legend has it that panpepato’s aphrodisiacal virtues helped “unite families” back when marriages were basically real estate contracts.
Panforte Bianco, also known as Panforte Margherita came about as a result of Queen Margaret of Savoy’s (yes, the same Queen whose moniker graces pizza margherita) 1879 visit to Siena. Her chamberlain had the job of choosing dishes for the “royal palate.” When he learned of the aphrodisiac qualities of the pan pepato, he nixed it from the menu. The Sienese, not wanting to suffer from a moment of “brutta figura,” created a more “chaste” or delicate version and christened it Panforte Margherita using candied citron instead of melon, blanched almonds, delicate spices, and a light honey. Panforte Fiorito is the Margherita recipe with a thin layer of pure marzipan on the top that has been covered with powdered sugar.
Panforte al Cioccolato, also known as panforte delle dame (panforte for ladies) was created in 1820 by Giovanni Parenti, the founder of the first panforte factory. The key ingredients are cocoa, blanched almonds, candied melon, and figs or dates, covered with a thin layer of chocolate fondant. This version takes a page from the popular dessert of the era: Sacher Torte.
As you unwrap a Panforte di Siena, study the beautiful paper: it is a pictorial history. If you are making panforte, we hope you channel the monasteries, the crusaders, the pasticcerie whose dedication to the confection keep its history alive today. Traditions and legends abound in Siennese panforte. It was believed that each cake had mystical properties — from losing your senses at the first bite to leading you to mend your wild ways! Old recipes state that the man who made panforte had to be virtuous, because those virtues led to panforte’s perfection. They advise not to skimp on the nuts or honey because walnuts, almonds, and hazelnuts are symbols of abundance and fertility, and honey is a talisman that the coming year be sweet. The order of mixing the ingredients was important: candied oranges, candied lemon skin, cinnamon bark, corianders, aromatic pepper, cloves, nutmeg. These are to be followed by adding honesty, laboriousness, love for good things, and temperance. Just do your best.
Panforte will get you through the Jan-Febs.
Panforte is meant to be savored at room temperature. It is a quick power snack with your coffee before yoga. Small slices redolent with powdered sugar are a great pick-me-up with a cup of Assam tea. Or a small wedge makes a perfect dessert with a sweet wine such as a vin santo or a marsala dolce. It is also wonderful with prosecco…which is no surprise. And, like a good quality fruitcake, panforte (whether homemade or store-bought) is an excellent antidote to the blahs of Jan-Febs (a term we adopted from one of Liz’s friends)
Food and Wine Magazine, December 2017 has an excellent article on the four landmark shops for tasting and buying the best panforte, including Pasticceria Sinatti, whose version we used to sell at La Cuisine. So, if you are visiting Siena and want to take some of the ingredients home, stop by the Antica Drogheria Manganelli. Our personal quest is to purchase one from Pasticceria Buti, Il Forno Il Magnifico, as well as the first two mentioned, just to decide for ourselves which qualifies as best.
Panforte Superior Sources And Prep Advice
We wanted to give you the option of one of the traditional panforte as well as Panforte Margherita (with the Fiorito option of marzipan) and Panforte Cioccolato.The process of making panforte is fairly simple. Sugar and butter are dissolved in honey, and various nuts, fruits and spices are mixed together with flour. Then the two are folded together. The entire mixture is baked in a shallow pan lined with parchment and optional wafer paper. The finished disc is dusted with sifted powdered sugar or a layer of chocolate fondant.
Buy only highest quality ingredients, particularly the candied fruits and nuts. We found hazelnuts from Piedmont to have a better taste than our domestic ones. Our favorite candied fruit comes from either Agrimontana, Sandro Vanini, and International Glace. Explore these suppliers to see their distributors. You may want to order in bulk from them. Market Hall Foods is a very good online source for panforte ingredients, including almonds, hazelnuts, and pistachios and Stramondo Marzipan. Amazon is our online source for India Tree sugar. For paper molds, we feel the best are produced by an Italian company, Novacart.
Assemble and measure all ingredients before you start the recipe.
Parchment paper liners and strips on the side make removing a panforte stress free. We suggest buttering them both.
Experiment with size and baking forms. We used the 6″ x 2″ round cake low panettone paper pans from Novacart (follow the link to purchase). But you can make them in individual rings on a baking sheet that is lined with parchment or in an American style layer cake pan or springform pan.
Edible wafer paper makes a wonderful base. Lay it on top of the parchment and it becomes the base of the panforte when the confection is removed from the pan.
Have all your dry ingredients mixed in a bowl. Then start melting the sugar, honey, and butter. This is the perfect time to pull out a Thermapen, because you do not want this mixture to get hotter than 240F.
Mix the sugar/honey mixture over the fruit and nut mixture, using a large wooden spoon.
Buttered hands or buttered spatula are key to spreading the mixture into the cake pans. The dough is actually quite malleable.
Panforte should have cooked edges but be a bit gooey in the middle. The cake will solidify as it cools.
Liberally apply sifted powdered sugar to the cooled panforte.For added complexity, Italian style, bury a vanilla bean in powder sugar and let it scent the sugar How much? As the Italians say, “come se non ci fosse un domani” (like there is no tomorrow).
Nancy Purves Pollard
- wafer paper (optional but it makes a nice base for presentation)
- 4oz (113gr) whole hazelnuts, skinned and toasted
- 4oz (113gr) whole blanched almonds, toasted
- 3oz (85gr) diced candied orange peel
- 3oz (85gr) diced candied lemon peel
- 3oz (85gr) diced candied citron peel
- You need about 9 oz(255gr) of mixed peel and can subsitute diced candied melon or cherries - but quality is of the utmost importance
- 1tsp lemon zest
- 2.5oz (71gr) all purpose unbleached white flour
- 1tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp ground coriander
- 1/4tsp ground cloves
- 1/4tsp ground nutmeg (fresh please)
- 1/8 tsp ground white pepper
- 5.5oz (156gr) caster sugar
- 3/4 cup (17.75cl) light honey
- 1oz (28gr) butter
- powdered sugar for dusting
- Preheat oven to 350F
- Butter a 9 inch (23cm) round springform pan and line the bottom with parchment and line the interior side with a strip of parchment.
- You can lay a round of wafer paper on top of the parchment circle.
- Combine the fruits and nuts in a large bowl
- In a separate bowl combine the flour, spices, and lemon zest and mix thoroughly with a whisk or pastry cutter
- Toss the fruit in the flour mixture.
- In a small saucepan, combine the sugar, honey, and butter and bring to a boil.
- Allow this syrup to reach the soft ball stage or 240F.
- Pour this over the fruit mixture and with a buttered wood spoon or a commercial spatula, fold the ingredients together.
- Butter your hands or use a buttered spatula to help manuver the dough into your pan.
- You want to flatten the cake to even the shape.
- Place the pan in the oven and bake about 30 to 40 minutes.
- The middle can be a little liquid, but the exterior should be more solid.
- You do not want to over bake.
- Allow to cool before removing from the pan.
- Sift (we use a fine strainer with the back of a spoon) confectioner's sugar over the top.
- Store at room temperature in a domed cake plate or covered in stretch wrap.
- A variation of this, which is more sumptious, (if that is possible) Is to roll out a sheet of marzipan and then use the cake pan as a template and cut a circle.
- Place that on top of the panforte, before dusting with a blizzard of powdered sugar!
- Panforte keeps for weeks and a little wedge with espresso, tea or vin santo will lift your spirit during the dreary JanFebs!
- 5 oz (1 cup) blanched almonds
- 4 oz (1/2 cup) diced candied orange peel
- 4oz (1/2 cup) diced candied lemon peel
- 4oz (1/2 cup) diced candied citron peel
- You can change the candied fruits, just make sure that the quality is good. These are the traditional ones.
- 2.8.z (1/2 cup) unbleached flour (can be bread flour)
- 1.4oz (1/3 cup) Dutch Process cocoa
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp ground allspice
- 1/4 tsp ground white pepper
- 1 short shot espresso
- 5oz (generous 1 cup) whole peeled hazelnuts
- 1/2 cup (12cl) mild honey
- 1/2 cup (12cl) caster or granulated sugar
- confectioners' sugar to sift over top after baking
- Toast both the almonds and hazelnuts either on top of the stove or in a 350F oven
- Butter a 9 inch(23cm) mold of your choice: cake pan, springfrom, ring
- Line with a circle of parchment paper and the optional wafer paper on top if desired.
- We suggest making a parchment strip on the side too and buttering the parchment.
- You can optionally flour the parchment or use almond flour instead.
- If you have wafer paper, it is not necessary to take the above step.
- Place all your candied fruits in a large mixing bowl
- Whisk all your dry ingredients in a bowl, and then fold in nuts with your hands until they are covered with the dry ingredients.
- In a sauce pan that has even heat distribution (we use a copper sugar pan) over moderate heat, mix the honey and sugar and then add the espresso shot or 2oz of intense coffee.
- Stirring with a wood spoon, allow the mixture to come to 240F or soft ball stage.
- Pour this mixture over the dry ingredients and fold vigorously with a buttered spoon or spatula.
- Pour and maneuver this mixture into your molds with buttered hands or buttered spatula.
- Press down so that the dough is evenly and flatly spread out through the form.
- Bake for about 35-40 minutes so the middle is a bit soft and the sides more set -- but do not overbake.
- Set aside to cool completely and then remove the cake from your form.
- If you are using a paper baking form, you can remove the sides for presentation as a gift.
- Generously sprinkle with confectioners' sugar and then wrap in plastic wrap.
- Panforte can be left at cool room temperature for weeks, or you can freeze it for several months.
- The slightly bitter cocoa taste combined with espresso makes this version especially good with dessert wines or other fortified wines.
- 3 cups (440 gr) whole blanched almonds
- 1 3/4 cup (220gr) whole peeled hazelnuts
- 2 cups (380gr) candied diced orange peel
- 6oz (170gr) dried apricots diced
- 5oz (145gr) dried figs diced
- 1 cup (145gr) unbleached white flour - can be bread flour
- 2 tbs (13.6gr) ground cinnamon
- 1 tbs (8gr) Dutch Process Cocoa
- 1tsp (2gr) fine sea salt
- 1 tsp(2gr) freshly ground nutmeg
- 1/2tsp (1gr) ground cloves
- 1/4tsp (1/2gr) freshly ground black pepper
- 1 3/4 cup (225gr) granulated sugar
- 1 3/4 cup (600gr) honey
- 6tbs (85gr) unsalted butter
- confectioners' sugar for dusting top of cooled panforte
- Preheat oven to 350F and generously grease 2 9-inch round cake pans or springforms.
- Place a circle of parchment (and optionally a circle of wafer paper on top) inside each form.
- Paperforms or rings on a greased and floured baking sheet, or one with greased parchment can be used instead
- Grease and dust the sides with flour or almond flour or make strips of greased parchment on the sides.
- Roughly chop nuts and add them with the candied peel and chopped dried fruit in a bowl and toss them to combine.
- In another bowl, combine the flour and spices and salt and mix thoroughly.
- Add the flour mixture to the fruit and nuts and mix thoroughly with a wood spoon or your hands.
- Combine the sugar, honey, and butter in a saucepan that has even heat distribution over medium heat.
- Stir this mixture over moderate heat until 240F or soft ball stage is reached.
- Butter a heatproof spatula or wood spoon and combine the two thoroughly.
- Transfer the warm dough to your prepared forms, using buttered spatula.
- Press the dough out to make sure it is flat and even.
- We do the above with buttered hands too!
- Bake the panforte for 30-40 minutes until the exterior is somewhat solid but the middle is still soft.
- Allow to cool thoroughly before removing from pan.
- Sift confectioners' sugar with abandon on top and then wrap in plastic wrap.
- Can be kept at cool room temperature for a month, longer in the fridge and for several months in your freezer.
- We had a hard time choosing which of these three recipes we liked the most, The dried fruit in this is a delicious variation.
After owning one of the best cooking stores in the US for 47 years, Nancy Pollard writes a blog about food in all its aspects – recipes, film, books, travel, superior sources and food related issues.