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My love for gingerbread has taken me on many culinary journeys. Most recently, it has led me to this celebrated confection from Siena, Italy. Panforte (literally “strong bread”), like its close relation pan pepato (literally “peppered/spiced bread”), is quite different from American molasses-based gingerbread cake. It is actually more akin to a dense fruitcake, flavored as it is with nuts, dried fruit, honey, caramelized sugar, and spices. Panforte is most often baked in large rounds, varying from 1/2 inch to about 1 1/2 inches thick, and then cut into thin wedges. In Siena, it is served (especially at Christmas) as a snack or dessert with a sweet wine, such as vin santo.
My version includes ingredients commonly found in panforte Margherita, such as honey, orange zest, and almonds, but I have also added some of my own favorites: hazelnuts, walnuts, dried cranberries, and dried apricots. Enjoy slices of this colorful, chewy confection alone or with a cheese course. To make your Sienese experience complete, pair the panforte with a glass of vin santo or other luscious dessert wine.
Makes one 8-inch panforte
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1 cup almonds, toasted and coarsely chopped
1/2 cup hazelnuts, toasted, skinned, and coarsely chopped
1/2 cup walnuts, toasted and coarsely chopped
1 cup lightly packed dried pitted apricots, coarsely chopped
1 cup dark raisins
3/4 cup dried cranberries
1/4 cup chopped candied orange peel
2 tablespoons chopped candied citron
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup honey
1/4 cup water
Confectioners’ sugar for dusting
Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat the oven to 300ºF. Butter an 8-by-2-inch nonstick springform pan and line the bottom with a round of parchment paper. (A nonstick pan is important here.)
Whisk together the flour, salt, cinnamon, ginger, coriander, allspice, and cloves in a large bowl. Add the almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, dried apricots, raisins, dried cranberries, and the candied orange peel and citron, stirring to coat them evenly with the dry ingredients.
Combine the sugar, honey, and water in a small saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the sugar and honey have dissolved. Bring to a boil, place a candy thermometer in the mixture, and continue to cook, without stirring, to 238ºF (soft-ball stage), 10 to 15 minutes.
Remove the cooked sugar from the heat, immediately pour it over the nut and fruit mixture, and stir until the ingredients are well combined. The batter will be very sticky and thick.
Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and, using a heat-proof spatula or your fingers, spread it evenly in the pan, pressing firmly. (If you use your fingers, you might want to wet them with cold water, before you start spreading the dough, to prevent them from sticking.) Wrap the pan with a parchment collar that rises about 3 inches above the pan and secure with kitchen twine.
Set the filled pan on a baking sheet and bake the panforte for 1 hour to 1 hour and 10 minutes, or until it is puffed and dark golden brown. Set the panforte on a wire rack to cool completely in the pan. When it has cooled, carefully remove the sides of the springform pan and slide the panforte off of the bottom of the pan.
Dust the panforte with confectioners’ sugar and cut it into thin wedges, if serving immediately. Alternatively, omit the dusting of sugar, keep the panforte whole, and store it for at least several days, as it improves with age. To store the panforte for more than a few days, wrap it in plastic wrap and set in a cool area or in the refrigerator for at least 3 days and up to 1 month. Dust with confectioners’ sugar before serving.
These days, pastry shops throughout Siena and Tuscany prepare many varieties of panforte. Panforte Margherita, however, remains one of the most traditional versions. Allegedly named for Queen Margherita (yes, same as the pizza) in the late nineteenth century, this confection calls for a flavorful combination of almonds, candied citrus, candied citron, honey, and a variety of spices, including cinnamon, allspice, ginger, and coriander. A generous dusting of confectioners’ sugar adds an elegant final flourish.
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