Italian

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

by:
December 13, 2016

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.

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.

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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! 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.

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. 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.

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?

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8 Comments

Sydne N. January 18, 2017
I've been making panforte every Christmas for about 25 years, ever since an Italian friend introduced me to it, and everyone who tries it seems to love it. I've experimented with lots of combinations of dried fruits and peels but prefer the most tart ones (usually lemon and orange peel) to counterbalance the sweetness of the honey and chocolate. This year, for the very first time, I used my chef-husband's instant read thermometer instead of using the cold water test while cooking the honey and sugar, and I was amazed at how much easier it was! Needless to say, I won't go back to the water method! I might even make another few batches before next Christmas!
 
Alexandra K. December 16, 2016
Funny coincidence: I recently saw candied cantaloupe in an Italian market here in Michigan and could not imagine how it was used... other than just eating it out of the bag.
 
Andreea December 14, 2016
Thank you for this recipe, I've been looking for a good panforte recipe. I wanted something with strong holiday flavours but no animal products as our family is now vegan. Candied cantaloupe is a bit hard to find in northern England but since cantaloupe is actually my partner's favourite fruit I will attempt making some from scratch over the weekend for this.
 
Denise December 13, 2016
I use David Leibovitz's recipe which has cocoa powder and honey in the batter and is also quite spicy but I'd like to try this one as it sounds even easier. One of the reasons I like making panforte is that it transports me back to medieval times when the monks made this (must've been monks with quite a sweet tooth!). I get mostly rave reviews with panforte with a few thumbs down. People either love it or they don't. It keeps for a long time without refrigeration.
 
Author Comment
Emiko December 14, 2016
It's true, it's not for everyone! But those who love it, really love it! I like David Lebovitz' recipe too, though the red chile powder is not so traditional (it's usually black or white pepper that gives panforte its heat), and although you can find modern variations with chocolate, the really classic panforte is just fruit and nuts. It's really one of the easiest desserts ever -- chop fruit, heat the honey, mix and pop it in the oven!
 
Valhalla December 13, 2016
I tried this last year, wanting to do something like fruitcake, just not. It was marvelously easy. My family was not crazy about it, which I blame on the spice profile (lots of coriander), but my in-laws loved it. I made the Tartine version because I love quince, but you have convinced me to candy some cantaloupe next year! Is it a particular melon, or would any orange-fleshed melon be appropriate?<br />I am encouraged to try again and scale back the spices a hair, and seek out Etrog citron instead of the Buddha's Hand type, which I think may have too distinctive a taste.
 
Author Comment
Emiko December 14, 2016
If your family don't like the spices, you can either leave the offending ones out or try the Panforte Margherita that I mention here -- don't use any spices, replace with seeds from a vanilla pod. It's a more delicate version. For the candied cantaloupe, any orange-fleshed melon would work!
 
Valhalla December 14, 2016
I think I'll make two--one with spice and one without. My citrus-loving mom should like that one. Thank you for bring Italy into our lives and kitchens. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!