Panforte is un dolce Natalizie- a seasonal treat from Siena, although it is sold all year round. A chewy, sweet cake, panforte leaves a wonderful aftertaste of candied citrus, almonds and a bold hit of spices.
Panforte dates back to the introduction of exotic spices from the East, via the port of Pisa. The earliest known record is from the year 1205. Documents in the State Archive of Siena state that a bread rich with pepper, spices and honey was paid as a tax to the monastery of Monte Celso on the seventh of February, 1205.
Panforte was originally made with flour, water, honey and spices, mixed with chunks of fresh autumn fruits such as grapes, figs and plums. The water content of the fruit kept the bread moist and after a few days, fermentation gave it an acidy flavour. This is where the name panes fortis, or ‘strong bread’ comes from. It was also known as panpepato because of the abundance of pepper and other spices and the dusting of black pepper on top.
Panpepato/panforte was made by speziali, spice sellers who could be considered medieval pharmacists. It was valued not only as a food but also as a medicinal remedy because of the spices it contained.
Siena was on the Via Francigena, the ancient pilgrimage route running through France to Roma, then to Puglia where the ports of Bari, Brindisi and Otranto were transit points for the Holy Land. This made Panforte known outside of Tuscany. A sweet cake with energy and sustenance, Crusaders carried it on their travels…like medieval energy bars! In 1515, a nun named Suor Berta changed the fruit to canditi-honeyed or candied fruit. The canditi were usually citrus fruits (orange, lemon and cedro/citron) and dark melon or pumpkin.
Canditi, nuts and especially spices were costosissimi-making Panforte an extremely expensive item. Only the wealthy could afford the extravagance. It was also given to the clergy as a gift on special occasions such as Christmas or local feast days.
The recipe remained the same for centuries, almonds, flour, honey, canditi and spices, dusted with black pepper and held together at the bottom with foglie di ostie-a sheet of unconsecrated communion host! That was until 1879, when Regina Margherita di Savoia– of pizza Margherita fame-visited Siena. In her honour, a local speziero made a more delicate ‘white’ version of panforte, without the black candied melon and covered with a dusting of vanilla icing sugar instead of black pepper. It was called Panforte Margherita and is the version most often sold today. In 2014, Panforte di Siena received the PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) European Union designation of quality label.
In Siena it is thought that Panforte should contain 17 different ingredients. This is because 17 is the number of Contrade or districts in Siena. Representatives from the Contrade take part in the Palio di Siena horserace every July 2 and August 16.
A thin wedge of panforte makes a delicious treat with caffè or liqueur after a meal. Panforte makes a beautiful edible gift-but only for very special people! I made mine small, wrapped them in parchment paper then in Florentine paper and sealed the bottom with a large gold sticker.
I used white pepper, as the flavour is more delicate, while still providing heat. It is hard to find good canditi, so I made my own with organic orange and lemon peels using Domenica’s recipe.
My homemade canditi ran out after 2 batches, then I substituted chopped dried Kalamata and Mission figs and sour cherries. The zest of an orange added a bit of citrus flavour. For the ostie, I used something called ‘edible wafer paper’ made with potato starch. Edible rice paper is also available at specialty food stores.
Panforte di Siena
125g (1 cup) hazelnuts
200g (1½ cups) blanched almonds
175g (1½ cups) icing sugar, sifted
200g (⅔ cup) good quality honey
30ml (2 tbsp) water
300g candied fruit peel (orange, lemon, citron) or dried fruit
Grated orange or lemon zest
5g (1 tsp) ground cinnamon
2g (¼ tsp) ground ginger
2g (¼ tsp) ground cloves
2g (¼ tsp) ground star anise
3g (½ tsp) ground coriander
2g (¼ tsp) ground nutmeg
2g (¼ tsp) ground white pepper
175g (1½ cup) flour, sifted
Ostie-unconsecrated communion wafer /wafer paper/rice paper
Icing sugar to coat
- Using a heavy saucepan and a low flame, set the sugar, honey and water to boil. Stir frequently with a wooden spoon, being careful to keep the syrup from sticking. This will take a while, so in the meantime, do steps 2 and 3.
- Use pan(s) with removable bottoms. Line with the ostie/wafer paper. If needed, grease and dust the sides with cocoa powder.
- Toast the nuts lightly for 6-10 min in a 200°C (400ºF) oven.
- Coarsely chop with a knife, or leave whole. Dice the candied fruit. Dice the candied fruit and mix with the spices and nuts, then add in the sifted flour.
- When the syrup in step 1 reaches at least 100°C (200°F ), remove pot from heat and stir into the fruit and nut mixture. If you do not have a candy thermometer, use a toothpick to pick up a bit of syrup and pass it under cold water. If it becomes solid, it is ready.
- Working quickly, using wet hands and 2 tablespoons, divide the batter into the pan(s), smoothing the top with damp fingers or the back of a wet spoon. It can also be pressed down with the bottom of a glass.
- Bake in a 150° C (300°F) oven for 35-40 minutes. Do not let the panforte brown, or it will be too hard.
- Remove the panforte from the pans and let cool completely on a rack. Dust with icing sugar on all sides. and serve cut into thin wedges.
- Panforte keeps well for a month if wrapped in parchment paper or in an airtight container and stored in a cool, dark place. Do not store in the fridge.
- This recipe makes one 22cm (9½ inch) panforte in a springform pan or six 10cm (4 inch) panforte in tart pans. A 25cm (10 inch) round of parchment paper and fancy paper wraps the 10cm size.
Buon appetito e Buone Feste, Cristina