If you’re looking for an alternative to Christmas cake (or an addition to it), then panforte is the bake for you. Sufficiently similar to our traditional Christmas cake in its flavours of Medieval spice, dried fruit and candied citrus that it can’t fail to evoke the Christmas spirit, it is still entirely distinctive. Panforte is shallower than Christmas cake, and more solid; the honey in the mix means that it is chewy rather than crumbly, and where a Christmas cake is stuffed full of vine fruits and cherries, panforte majors in dates and figs. A slim wedge of the dense, spiced bake is more than sufficient and even, whisper it, more elegant than our homegrown Christmas cake.
Appropriately, given its provenance, its flavours and chewiness are reminiscent of a florentine: the cake comes from Siena, Florence’s neighbour, and is an old Tuscan cake which probably began life as a spiced bread. The first reference to it is from 1205, where it is described as a honey and pepper bread, which was paid as a tithe to a Sienese monastery. As spices reached Italy from the East, they were incorporated into the cake, but their rarity and expense marked panforte out as something reserved for the rich, and even then only for important occasions – which is probably how it came to be associated with Christmas.
The original panforte was darker than the modern day version, and would be made with black candied melon (‘candito nero di Ponone’) which, even in Tuscany, is extremely difficult to come by today. But since the nineteenth century, a lighter version has been made, the panforte Margherita is named after Margherita di Savoia, Queen of Italy from 1878. This version, which has become the standard Sienese panforte doesn’t require the black candied melon.
It’s a delightfully straightforward cake to make – much easier than panettone, quicker than christmas cake, and significantly less faffy than steaming a christmas pud (much as I love all of these treats) – but will keep just as long as any of them, and evoke the same amount of spiced christmas spirit. The nuts and dried fruit are reduced to a rubble by judicious chopping – not too small, as they bring the texture to the cake – and then the honey, sugar and fortified wine are heated together until bubbling, before being poured over the fruit and nuts, lighting them up like Christmas decorations.
For the nuts, almonds are the most common choice, and I like to use a good proportion of them in my version, but slightly bitter walnuts, rich, buttery hazelnuts, and soft sweet pistachios bring complexity and variety of colour, flavour and texture. When it comes to spice, clove, nutmeg and white pepper are near-essential for that old-fashioned, festive feel, but I love the addition of citrusy coriander and earthy, floral cardamom. Often the bottom or sides of the commercially produced panforte are lined with rice paper, but it can be tricky to get hold of, so I favour a generous dusting of icing sugar on the cooled cake, and a well-greased cake tin.
Panforte is good served with coffee, but even better alongside vin santo, the sweet Sienese fortified wine.
Makes: an 8 inch disc
Takes: 10 minutes
Bakes: 40 minutes
200g skin on almonds
150g of walnuts, pistachios or hazelnuts
100g dates, chopped
150g figs, chopped
100g candied peel
¼ teaspoon ground clove
¼ teaspoon ground coriander
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon white pepper
¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
100g plain flour
150g light muscovado sugar
2 tablespoons Vin Santo, or other fortified wine
Icing sugar, for dusting
- First, toast all the nuts at 180°C for ten minutes, shuffling the tray half way through. Meanwhile, thoroughly grease and line a 8 inch cake tin with removable bottom. Roughly chop the toasted nuts into a rubble. Reduce the oven temperature to 160°C.
- Place the chopped nuts, chopped dates and figs, and candied peel into a large bowl.
- Mix all the spices with the flour in a separate bowl, and then toss with the chopped fruit and nuts.
- Heat the honey, sugar and fortified wine together until it reaches a rolling boil. Pour the bubbling mixture over the floured and spiced nuts and fruits. Stir to even distribute the syrup, then spoon into the prepared cake tin. Pat down with a spatula so that the mixture sits in an even layer, then bake for 40 minutes.
- Leave to cool for ten minutes, then run a knife around the edge of the cake, and lift from the tin. Leave to cool completely, then dust generously with icing sugar.