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A Christmas Cake That's About 80% Nuts & Candied Fruit

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In terms of Christmas cakes, this is maybe the richest, spiciest one of them all. It's not known as panforte—literally “strong bread” or panpepato, meaning “peppered bread”—for nothing.

It's said panforte, which originated in Medieval Siena, should have 17 key ingredients, one to represent each of the 17 contrade, or districts, in the town—well, 16 ingredients, plus the fire to cook it in. Dense with candied fruit and whole nuts and heavily spiced, it's not hard to imagine what this Tuscan treat would have been like five centuries ago or more: mostly the same, with breadcrumbs rather than flour and honey in place of the sugar syrup.

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Traditional Panforte (Spicy Tuscan Christmas Cake)
Traditional Panforte (Spicy Tuscan Christmas Cake)

Panforte is perfect in late afternoon on a cold day when you need a pick me up and a zing of spices to warm your cheeks. And because a little goes a long way, one panforte can last a long time, so it's a good to share. It makes an ideal Christmas treat, either as a beautifully wrapped, handmade gift or served in a thin wedges at the end of a long meal. It also happens to be one of the easiest cakes in the world to make. You just have to mix and pour.

The only hurdle you may have here is getting the ingredients—more specifically, the candied fruit. You want the best of its kind, which usually means homemade. I suggest following Alice Medrich's instruction for candied citrus peel. Failing that, seek out some artisan candied fruit, the kind that's sold in large pieces, or even whole, and if you can find candied cantaloupe, you've hit gold. It isn't cheap, but, being the main ingredient in panforte, it makes all the difference to the resulting flavor and texture.

Those nuts! That dried fruit!
Those nuts! That dried fruit! Photo by Emiko Davies

My local spice shop in Florence (a shop that would not look out of place in the nineteenth century) has large glass jars of marshmallow-soft, candied cantaloupe in long slices. They are unlike anything I have ever seen or tasted before, simply melting when baked in the panforte, giving a mellow sweetness and smooth consistency.

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If you can't find candied cantaloupe, the next best replacement is candied citron. In fact, a more delicate version of regular panforte, known as Panforte Margherita, exclusively calls for candied citron. Invented in 1879 for a visit of Queen Margherita of Savoy to Siena, it's made using candied citron in place of the cantaloupe and only vanilla instead of all of the characteristic spices. The resulting panforte is a caramel-blonde, rather than brunette, and looks lovely dusted in powdered sugar.

Wrap slices of panforte up for an edible gift.
Wrap slices of panforte up for an edible gift. Photo by Emiko Davies

Another alternative (taking a hint from Nigella and her Christmas cookbook) is using dried figs in place of the candied cantaloupe. Seek out softer dried figs, which, when chopped finely, become almost a paste. The result will be somewhat stickier rather than the smooth, dense filling of a traditional panforte, so you may want leave the bottom of the panforte lined with greaseproof paper. And while figs are not traditional, they're a delicious substitute for those who don't have access to great candied fruit.

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Traditional Panforte (Spicy Tuscan Christmas Cake)

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Serves 16
  • 14 ounces (400 grams) whole candied canteloupe or citron, or dried figs (see note)
  • 1/4 cup (50 grams) of chopped candied orange and candied lemon
  • 2 1/2 cups (325 grams) of peeled nuts (almonds are most traditional, you can use also walnuts and hazelnuts)
  • 1 1/4 cups (155 grams) of plain flour
  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg or mace
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 3/4 cups (350 grams) of white granulated sugar
  • 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
  • Bittersweet cocoa powder, for dusting (optional)

Emiko, a.k.a. Emiko Davies, is a food writer and cookbook author living in Tuscany, where she writes about (and eats!) regional Italian foods. You can read more of her writing on her blog.

Tell us: Have you made panforte before?

Tags: Italy, Regional Italian Food, panforte, Christmas cake, vegan, nuts, candied fruit, spices