More than most other cakes I’ve made, panforte called for skill, daring and panache, and a readiness for adventure.
Panforte, or strong bread, floods our shops at Christmas next to panettone and whisky fruit cake, then disappears for the rest of the year. I like to hoard panforte for a couple of months after Christmas, nibbling on thin slices with an afternoon coffee. Dark, rich with nuts and fruits, mysterious with peppery spices, it also tells me whether it’s time for a visit to the dentist.
I first saw a recipe for panforte a year ago. It stuck in the back of my mind. It nagged me every month or so. When I looked for a recipe to use up the nuts and dried fruits in our kitchen pantry, before a five week holiday, the recipe raised its head and said ‘aha!’
It wasn’t quite that simple.
In the two weeks before our holiday, work reached fever pitch. It felt as though I was working into the night, and woke up the next morning simply to start again. We had more takeaways than home-cooked meals, Mr Gander found a new favourite Turkish pide vendor. The recipe sat in the neglected kitchen and looked at me with sad puppy eyes. Then, miraculously, work had a lull, I was home early, there was nothing to do except cook a proper meal and bake. And bake I did.
We had blueberry & lemon mini-bundt cakes, a savoury goat cheese & pistachio loaf, a mysterious concoction that is best described as white choc macadamia blondies topped with coconut-walnut macaroons (turned out surprisingly well, considering there was no recipe and I simply added butter and sugar until there was no butter or sugar left). I also made panforte.
We invited people around and ate everything except the panforte. It was sliced, dusted with icing sugar, inexpertly wrapped, and we were away to Europe.
Upon our return, I unwrapped one package to find a dark, dark cake that…looked and tasted more or less like panforte!!
There is the sticky, mellow undertone of honey, a pick-me-up from spices and black pepper, and the age-old play between Christmas-y nuts and candied and dried fruits. It was dark, tending to black, contrasting with snow-white icing sugar. It was less tooth-breaking than commercial panforte, and less evenly mixed, but was still best enjoyed in thin slices, with a strong black coffee or whisky. I have just made my first panforte.
Maybe, this year, with a few more trials, I won’t be hoarding shop-bought panforte, and friends will be receiving brown paper packages tied up with strings – with one of my favourite things within.
Slightly fuzzy post-holiday baking notes: I adapted the recipe from the Wednesday Chef, subbing candied citron and other Italian-sounding dried fruits for candied quince.
Making the panforte batter / mixture is a real adventure. Mix flour, cocoa powder, spices, citron zest, nuts and dried fruit together, make a honey and sugar syrup with a candy thermometer (or learn to recognise the signs that the syrup is ready), dump bubbling honey syrup over the dry ingredients, mix until no flour streaks or clumps remain – before the honey syrup cools. The Wednesday Chef gives this dramatic explanation: “The syrup, boiling hot, will hit the nuts and fruit and then, in a heartbeat, turn to what feels like hot tar. Arm yourselves, therefore, either with plastic gloves or a very heavy-duty plastic spatula and move quickly. Mix the syrup into the fruit and nuts well, moistening every last bit and making sure that no powdery streak of flour remains.”
Then, bake the mixture in lined cake tins for what seems like hours, until the mixture darkens further and sets – but before it darkens too much and burns. I went by smell, and instinctive fear of burning the cake, rather than the exact time specified in the recipe.
Next time – yes there will be a next time – there will be a candy thermometer and a little more skill, daring and panache.
(From the Wednesday Chef, who took it from Tartine, one of the books on my ever-growing to-buy list. I have converted imperial measurements to metric, and added a couple of annotations)
Makes: a lot, it’s holiday baking after all
Candied fruits including citron, coarsely chopped (8 ounces or 225 grams)
Candied orange zest, coarsely chopped (3 ounces or 85 grams)
1 cup dates, pitted and coarsely chopped (5 ounces or 140 grams)
1 cup prunes, pitted and coarsely chopped (5 ounces or 140 grams)
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons currants (4 ounces or 115 grams)
2 tablespoons grated orange zest
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
1 cup lightly toasted unsalted pistachios
2 cups well-toasted hazelnuts
2 cups well-toasted almonds
2/3 cup (approx 90 grams) plain / AP flour
1/2 cup (approx 45 grams) cocoa powder
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
Grated nutmeg from 1 1/2 nutmegs (I used 3 teaspoons of nutmeg…)
3/4 teaspoon ground coriander
3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3/4 teaspoon ground cloves
3/4 cup honey
1 1/3 cups (approx 230 grams) granulated / castor sugar
1/4 cup (approx 35 grams?) powdered / icing sugar
1. Heat the oven to 160C / 325F. Butter a 10-inch springform pan (I used a smaller springform pan and a small loaf pan), line with greased baking paper.
2. In the largest mixing bowl you have (I had to use two bowls), combine the candied and dried fruit, zest, and nuts. Sift together the flour, cocoa powder, pepper and other spices over the fruits and nuts. Mix well – the nuts and fruit should look like dusty nuggets. Set aside.
3. In a deep, heavy saucepan, combine the honey and sugar over medium-high heat. Make sure there is plenty of room for the syrup to froth up! Stir with a wooden spoon from time to time to prevent sticking. Cook until the mixture registers 250 degrees on a thermometer, about 3 minutes. I waited til the mixture was really frothy, and looked like boiling water when cooking pasta.
4. Pour the syrup over the dry ingredients. Either use a wooden spoon or gloved hands – very quickly – mix or stir the syrup thoroughly. The mixture should come together once it is well mixed. I found there were wet and dry patches that needed to be mixed well. Work quickly. As the mixture cools, it will fir up and become much harder to mix.
5. Spoon or pour or drop the mixture to the prepared pans. Smooth the top with a rubber spatula dipped in water (my mixture was pretty firm by this stage, so I just vaguely flattened it with the wooden spoon). Bake until the top is slightly puffed and looks like a brownie, and a deeply caramelised smell is wafting from the oven and you think it will start to smell burnt if you leave it in there for much longer. This should take about 1 hour, give or take 10-15 minutes depending on your oven. Cool in the pan on a wire rack until warm to the touch, turn out of the pan (you may need to run a knife around the edge to loosen).
6. Sift the icing sugar over the top, bottom and sides of the panforte, shake off excess over the sink. The recipe says It will keep, well wrapped, in a cool, dry place for up to 2 weeks. We kept ours in the fridge for about 5 weeks, and it’s still good. Serve at room temperature and with a strong black coffee, cut into small, thin slices for nibbling.