This is a tale of monks, crusaders and 13th-century documents buried in State archives. This is the story of panforte, a traditional Italian sweetmeat, which literally translates as “strong bread”. It isn’t exactly The Da Vinci Code – mystic puzzles and action-packed adventure – but I promise you, there are monks, crusaders and medieval documents involved.
Originally, this sweetmeat was thought to have been called panpepato (“peppered bread”). Both “peppered” and “strong” in these terms refer to the strong peppery spices used in making the “bread”. It evolved from the idea of adding spices to the basic Pan Melato (“honey bread”). While panforte is now associated with Tuscany (and specifically Siena), it is still called panpepato in the neighboring region of Emilia-Romagna.
According to a number of sources I consulted, the earliest mention of this type of sweetmeat can be found in documents in the historic archives of Siena, dating back to the year 1205. In these documents, there are testimonies indicating that panpepati e mielati (“honeyed pepper bread”) were used as payment for tithes (obligatory contributions to the Church) by tenants of a local monastery.
We’ve had the monks and the medieval documents, now for the crusaders. With the addition of the spices to the “bread”, panforte or panpepato had a long shelf-life. Because of this characteristic, it was thought to have been carried by the crusaders on their journeys to the Holy Land. Certainly better than hard tack!
Chocolate Cherry Panforte
I love traditional Sienese panforte, but also enjoy this version in which I have added flavors and textures I found worked well together. I usually make several small “loaves” of this – to be presented as gifts, and (of course) one for us. Serve it cut into very thin slices. It is dense and a little bit “jawbreaking” like good chewy toffee. But, the flavor is divine!
Makes two 6 inch round “loaves”
- 1 cup (approximately 100 to 120g) hazelnuts, toasted and husked
- 1 cup (approximately 100 to 120g) blanched almonds
- 3/4 cup finely chopped dates, about 7 large Medjool dates
- 1/2 cup coarse cut candied peel (I use what is called Italian peel consisting of coarse cut candied orange and lemon peel)
- 1/4 cup finely chopped glacé cherries
- 1/2 cup chopped dried cherries
- 2 Tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1/2 cup approximately 60g) plain (all-purpose) flour
- Zest from 1 orange
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- Pinch of salt
- Pinch of ground white pepper
- 3/4 cup (6 fluid oz. or approximately 180ml) honey
- 3/4 cup (approximately 170g) caster sugar
- 2 Tablespoons (1 oz.) butter
- Additional cocoa powder
Preheat oven to 300 degrees F (approximately 150 degrees C). Prepare two 6-1/2 inch (16cm) diameter spring form or two-part baking pans by lightly buttering and lining the bottom and sides with baking parchment. Lightly butter the parchment paper.
Coarsely chop the hazelnuts and almonds. Place nuts in a large bowl with the chopped dates, glacé cherries, candied peel, dried cherries, cocoa powder, flour, orange zest and the spices. Mix, separating any clumps of sticky dried fruit so that they are evenly coated in the spice flour and cocoa.
In a heavy bottomed pot, heat your honey, sugar and butter until it reaches the “soft ball” stage. If you don’t have a candy thermometer, you can test to see if it has reached this stage by dropping one drop into a small bowl of cold water. If the droplet forms a soft ball between your fingers, it is ready. It will only take a few minutes to reach this stage. Pour this over the fruit and nuts in the bowl, stirring quickly with a wooden spoon to incorporate the liquid into the dry mixture.
Immediately fold into the prepared pans, pressing down and smoothing the top by using a sheet of baking parchment.
Place the pans on a baking tray and bake for 30 minutes, until it is begins to look dry on top. Remove from oven and let it cool on rack.
When completely cool in its pan. Release the sides (if using spring-form pans) or run a knife around the sides (if using two-part baking pans) and lift out. Remove the pan bottoms and peel away the paper. Dust the top liberally with the additional cocoa powder. Store in an air-tight tin or plastic container. They can be kept for a month or more. However, ours never lasts that long!