Ancient Christmas traditions: Il Panforte di Siena
Every year Christmas seems to arrive as a surprise, catching me only half-prepared; cards, gifts, and decorations are never quite what I had originally planned – the same goes for my famous edible hampers that I always intend to make for every gourmet member of the family!
There is one gift though that I never miss to make and which, over time, I perfected with a personal touch – panforte. Panforte literally means “strong bread” and the name is not a misrepresentation of what it really is – every year I was prepared to hear screams of despair from my grandmother having realized she had lost a tooth after biting eagerly into her chunky slice.
It is the Christmas dessert par excellence for every family in Siena. When I was young I used to hate all the spices and the sticky consistency of panforte and dreamt for some new dessert on the table; however, with age and wisdom I have learnt to appreciate it and I am going to make sure I won’t miss it this year either.
Panforte, also originally called “pan di Natale”, Christmas bread, is probably one of the oldest cakes in Italy as it dates back to the 11th century. It was initially a very modest cake made only with flour, honey and dried fruit; its name was due to the fact that it was slightly acidic, furtis, rather than forte. Through the centuries though, it developed into an upper class dessert with candied lemon, orange, and melon peels, almonds and mixed spices, all of which were extravagantly expensive in the old days.
My family recipe, which is also my favourite one, is the last “mutation” of panforte, “Margherita”, offered by the Senese people to Queen Margherita di Savoia when she visited Siena (the same queen Neapolitans created their pizza for). It has no candied melon and is covered with a thick layer of icing sugar instead of black pepper.
What I love in this recipe is that, while it is easy to make, it makes a tasty and flavourful panforte. I hope you will try it this Christmas – it also makes for wonderful gifts!
Ingredients to make 2 small (12 cm wide) cakes.
Boil the water in a pan and add the honey and sugar until they form froth on the surface. Don't let it over-boil or it will evaporate and you will be left with a gloopy blob.
Add the candied fruit, the spices, the chocolate and almonds (whole not chopped) and let the mixture simmer for about 6-7 minutes
Remove from the hob and let the mixture cool in a large bowl. Add the sifted flour incorporating it well a little at the time. Set it aside while you grease a 12cm wide x 5cm tall tin.
Pour the mix in the tin and cook in a pre-heated oven at 180C° for 25 minutes.
When it is cold, sprinkle it with icing sugar.
Enjoy it at the end of your meal with a glass of Vin Santo or sherry.