Italy, especially Siena, excels in Christmas desserts of various kinds and my two favorites are Cavallucci and Panforte. Cavallucci are delicious cookies, crunchy on the outside and chewy in the middle, made with anise, walnuts, candied fruits and spices.
They are too much trouble to make at home whereas Panforte is relatively simple and this home-made version tastes better than most of the commercial ones that you find in the shops over Christmas here in Italy; probably because the ingredients are not cheap and so there is a tendency to cut a few corners in order to keep the price of the finished product reasonable. But when making Panforte at home there should be no such inhibitions.
Panforte’s origins in Siena go back 1,000 years when it was known as Panpepato, its name being derived from pepper which together with other spices had only just made an appearance in Italy. Unaffordable for most people, Panpepato was enjoyed by the aristocracy and wealthy nobles.
The current version of Panforte dates back to 1887 when the ingredients were modified for a visit of the Italian King and Queen to Siena and it was then that the top covering of icing sugar was also added; Panforte has been a white cake ever since.
Ingredients for the best home-made Panforte:
100g blanched almonds
70g unsalted pistachios
150g soft dried dates, quartered
50g dried apricots, quartered
150g mixed candied peel
25g unsalted butter
175g Lyle’s golden syrup or honey
115g caster sugar
20g cocoa powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon mixed spice (nutmeg, ground cloves etc)
icing sugar to dust
1. Briefly toast all the nuts in a dry pan on medium heat without burning.
2. Mix the flour, cocoa powder and spices in a bowl and combine with the nuts and dried fruit.
3. Mix together the syrup, sugar and butter in a pan on low heat and stir for a few minutes until very hot and the sugar has dissolved. Pour this over the dry ingredients in the bowl and stir until thoroughly mixed.
4. Spoon it into a 22 cm (8.5 inch) baking tin, pressing down firmly so the surface is flat and level.
5. Bake until the mixture is richly brown and bubbling a little at the sides - about 50 minutes at 160° C.
6. Leave to cool slightly before turning out onto a wire rack to cool completely, then lightly dust with icing sugar.