Panforte: An Ancient Christmas Sweet from Siena

Three types of panforte in a Tuscan shop window
Three types of panforte in a Tuscan shop window. Robert Alexander/Getty Images

Christmas represents many different things: it's a religious holiday, but also an opportunity for families to gather, strengthening the ties between the generations. This aspect of the holiday is especially important in parts of Italy that were abandoned by the younger generation during the economic boom of the 1960s, when the unemployed in the provinces moved to the northern cities to take factory jobs.

One of the highlights of the reunion is, of course, the Christmas dinner, or cenone, which varies tremendously from place to place; in Tuscany and Emilia it's meat-based, featuring, among other things, cappelletti (the Modenese variation on tortellini) in capon broth, and later a boiled capon.

Desserts tend to be sumptuous, and perhaps Siena's most of all: panforte, a sort of dense, flourless, and heavily spiced fruitcake, a heavenly mixture of honey, spices, candied fruit, and almonds whose origin stretches back into the mists of time. The name literally means "strong bread," and it derives from an older version, named panpepato, which translates as "peppered" (i.e., spiced) bread, though neither version traditionally contains any flour. 

History of Panforte

Most say it has medieval origins, and that it was invented in the 1200s by a novitiate nun, Suor Leta. According to the legend, she discovered a mound of sugar, spices, and almonds in the bottom of the spice cabinet -- mice had chewed holes in the bags, and the precious offerings made by pilgrims returning from the Holy Land were hopelessly mixed.

Her first thought was to gather the mess in a bag and bury it, but that sort of waste was a sin. So she stood there, stroking her chin and wondering what to do, when a black cat came into the kitchen and the thought came to her: Put it all on the fire and make yourself something tasty. So she did; the sugar melted and caramelized, the nuts toasted, the spices mixed, and to keep it all from sticking to the pan, she stirred in some honey, then the remaining almonds and put the mixture into the oven to let it set.

It smelled delicious and she was feeling very pleased with herself, when the cat, who had been rubbing up against her and purring, said, "Aren't you going to taste it?" Cats don't talk but the Devil does; she dumped the contents of the pan over him and he changed into his true form, vanishing in a foul-smelling puff of smoke. By the time Suor Berta, the Mother Superior, reached the kitchen, the dessert's heavenly aroma had overcome the devil's stench; curious to know what was powerful enough to overcome the Evil One, Sister Berta tasted what was left in the pan.

Others say panforte is older still: An orphan who followed the comet to Baby Jesus tried to give him the crust of bread he had in his pocket; Joseph took it, gave a crumb to one of the birds whose nest was in the rafters overhead, and returned the rest to the boy, whose eyes filled with tears at the thought that his gift was too poor. Then a voice thanked him, and when he returned home to the hovel he shared with his grandmother he found his parents, his mother radiant and his father in burnished armor, while the table was decked for a feast, with sumptuous platters arranged around an exquisite pastry made with almonds, honey, and candied fruit.

No matter how you look at it, there is something magical about panforte. Over the centuries, there have been many variations, as new ingredients were discovered or became available. In the 1820s, the Pasticceria Parenti in Rome introduced a chocolate variety that was immensely popular for a time, and is still sold, but now the most popular varieties are Panforte nero and Panforte margherita.

Panforte nero is dark and has a complex taste conferred by bitter almonds; it's sought out by connoisseurs.

Panforte margherita is light colored and much more delicate, with a dusting of confectioner's sugar; Enrico Righi developed the recipe in 1879 and first offered it to Queen Margherita, who came to see Siena's famous Palio horse races with King Umberto every year.

Panforte Recipe

Most printed recipes for panforte yield industrial quantities -- 50 pounds or more.

These are more manageable; the quantities for panforte nero are from Il re dei cuochi, published anonymously by Salani in 1885, while those for panforte margherita are from a collection of traditional Tuscan recipes.

Ingredients

 

Panforte Nero:Panforte Margherita:
2 1/2 ounces baking chocolate1 1/2 cups (180 g) flour
2/3 cup sugar1 3/4 cups confectioner's sugar
1 cup less 2 tablespoons shelled almonds3/4 cup honey
1/2 cup honey1 cup less 2 tablespoons nutmeats
4 shelled bitter almonds1 3/4 cup shelled almonds
1 1/2 cups (180 g) flour2 ounces candied citron
A handful of pine nuts8 ounces candied fruit peel (oranges and such)
1/2 teaspoon. ground cinnamon1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
About 4 ounces candied citronA pinch of allspice
The grated rind of a lemon1 scant teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves1 tablespoon confectioner's sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground pepper 

15 wafers (the kind used for communion; available from delicatessens).

How to Make Panforte

Once you have assembled the ingredients, proceed as follows:

Parboil the nuts and toast them lightly.

If you are making panforte nero, mash half the almonds with the bitter almonds, chop the rest with the pine nuts, and then combine the two; if you are making panforte margherita chop the nuts together. Dice the candied fruit and mix it and the spices with the nuts, then mix in the flour.

Line a 9-inch diameter, deep-dish pan with the wafers.

Using a copper or heavy-bottomed pot and a very low flame, set the sugar, honey, chocolate (for panforte nero) and a touch of water to boil. Stir continuously with a wooden spoon, being careful to keep the mixture from sticking. When the syrup reaches the hard ball stage, remove the pot from the stove and stir in the fruit and nut mixture. Pour the resulting batter into the pan, smoothing the top with a dampened knife. Bake in a 300 F oven for about a half hour. The panforte should not brown.

When the panforte's done, remove the pan from the oven and trim the excess wafers sticking up around it.

If you are making panforte margherita, sprinkle the confectioner's sugar over it. Serve cold, with vinsanto.

A final word on panforte: It is available in delicatessens outside of Siena (generally the Margherita variety) in several sizes, the most common of which is about 1/2-inch thick and 9 inches across (1 cm by about 27 cm). You may also be able to find the thicker variety that's proudly displayed in the windows of Siena's bars and pastry shops, which is what you should buy if you visit Siena; I suggest you seek out the Pasticceria Bini, behind the Duomo, on the street that circles down to the baptistery (exit Piazza del Duomo to the left of the cathedral).