Christmas in Tuscany would not be complete without a slice of panforte — the peppery, dried fruit and nut-based spice cake born in the central Tuscan hill town of Siena in the Middle Ages — served with a glass of vin santo, a sweet Italian dessert wine.
Several legendary origin stories surround panforte. Some culinary historians believe it was inspired by lokum, aka Turkish delight, the ancient date- and nut-based confection popular in different forms in several Middle Eastern countries to this day, brought back to Tuscany by medieval-era crusaders. According to local lore, Sienese soldiers won the Battle of Montaperti against their rivals, the Florentines, in 1260, thanks in part to the spiced treat, which is not only packed with protein-powered energy but also travels well.
In Siena, the cake was once considered a cure for a variety of ailments and was originally prepared by spice merchants, the pharmacists of the Middle Ages. The traditional recipe calls for 17 ingredients, one for each contrada, or neighborhood, of Siena (the same contrade that compete against one another in the palio, a passionate horse race held in the heart of the city, Piazza del Campo, twice every summer since 1633, with just one pause during the two World Wars).
One ingredient — black pepper — was especially prized in medieval times: Monasteries and convents accepted pepper, which was once as precious as gold, as a tithe, in place of currency. The monks and nuns baked the surplus of pepper into panforte , which is also known in Tuscany as panpepato, pepper bread.
Though the list of ingredients is long, preparing panforte is quite simple. The secret to making exceptional panforte is to choose your ingredients wisely: Use only freshly ground spices; organic, farm fresh nuts and dried fruits; and a top-notch honey, like millefiori honey (aka wildflower honey).
Panforte keeps well — its flavors deepen over time — and can be stored at room temperature in an airtight container for up to two months. Cut with a serrated knife and serve in thin slices, accompanied by a fine vin santo.
Amy Bizzarri is a freelance writer .
Prep: 30 minutes
Cook: 45 minutes
Makes: 16 servings
¾ cup all-purpose flour
1 ½ cups peeled, coarsely chopped hazelnuts, toasted
1 ½ cups peeled, coarsely chopped almonds, toasted
1 cup soft, dried apricots, coarsely chopped
1 cup soft, dried figs, coarsely chopped
½ cup candied orange peel, coarsely chopped
½ cup candied lemon peel, coarsely chopped
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup sugar
½ cup honey
3 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
1. Heat your oven to 300 degrees F. You will use an 8-inch springform pan. Cut a piece of parchment paper (the same size as the bottom of the pan) and place on the inside bottom of the pan. Grease the parchment with butter.
2. Mix the flour, nuts, dried and candied fruit, spices and salt in a mixing bowl.
3. In a small saucepan over medium heat, stir the sugar, honey and butter until the mixture reaches a boil. Keep stirring until it reaches a temperature of about 230 degrees F, usually about 2 minutes after reaching the boiling point.
4. Pour the boiling syrup over the ingredients in the mixing bowl. Add the vanilla. Stir with a wooden spoon until combined and the ingredients are well-distributed. Pour the mixture into the prepared springform pan and press it compactly into the pan with your fingers, smoothing the top with a spatula.
5. Bake, 45 minutes. Let cool completely, then remove the panforte from the pan. Sprinkle heavily with powdered sugar.
Nutrition information per serving: 312 calories, 17 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 6 mg cholesterol, 39 g carbohydrates, 28 g sugar, 6 g protein, 82 mg sodium, 5 g fiber