Every other Thursday, we bring you Nicholas Day -- on cooking for children, and with children, and despite children. Also, occasionally, on top of.
Every day till Christmas, we're bringing you 12 Days of Baking: 12 all-new baking recipes to lift holiday spirits -- from breakfast pastries to dinner rolls, and all the desserts you can handle.
Today: Nicholas brings us a memorable Italian fruitcake variant.
We all have our peculiar favorite holiday baked goods, which may be radically different from what you like to eat the rest of the year. These affiliations were formed in childhood; they owe nothing to how you think of yourself now. It’s worth remembering this when you decide what holiday treat to make with, and for, and despite, your children. Because they may imprint on it. And you may have to make it for the rest of your natural life.
Which is why I am warning you, in advance, that panforte is an addictive substance.
Carol Field describes panforte as “the best fruitcake you could ever imagine, denser than sweet bread and only slightly less rich than candy.” All this is true. Panforte is incredibly powerful: it has more taste per square inch than any other holiday baked good. That’s an invidious comparison, though: that’s like saying that Michael Phelps is a better swimmer than you. The truth is, panforte is in a different class altogether. It doesn’t taste baked. It tastes as if it were made using special equipment that Willy Wonka kept hidden in the basement. It is glossy and gummy and it looks compacted by time. It resembles a geological core sample, if the Earth had gone through a period where the sediment was almonds, and hazelnuts, and candied citrus.
This panforte is from Field’s The Italian Baker, a superlative and endlessly inspiring book. The list of Italian holiday baked goods alone is staggering, and even more so in her Celebrating Italy, which goes long and deep on the subject. It would be a good idea to not open any other cookbooks in the month of December. She claims that panforte “may” have taken by the Crusaders as a “long-lasting food to give them quick bursts of energy.” Panforte: the original Powerbar.
There is nothing especially child-friendly about making panforte. Really the only thing child-friendly about panforte is that you can make up stories about a superhero named Strong Bread, who saves lesser breads from staleness and insipidness. (His superpower is the ability to slip candied orange peel in already baked breads.) It’s not a time-consuming cake; it just requires a fair amount of fine-measuring and syrup-making and chopping, especially if you make the candied orange peel (and the candied citron).
In my mind, though, at this time of year, that is a reason to make panforte. Baking in December is all about making things you really don’t have time to make and can’t possibly justify setting aside time to make. That’s why we remember these particular treats with such vividness, of course: no one bothers to do that in May.
Last night Isaiah had his first slice of panforte. It takes a while to chew through it. It may take a lifetime.
Adapted very lightly from The Italian Baker by Carol Field (Ten Speed Press, 2011)
Makes 1 cake
1 cup hazelnuts
1 cup blanched almonds
1 cup candied orange peel, coarsely chopped
1 cup candied citron peel, finely chopped
1 teaspoon lemon zest, grated
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
pinches ground white pepper
3/4 cups sugar
3/4 cups honey
2 tablespoons butter
confectioners' sugar (optional)
See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.
Photos by James Ransom