Well, Christmas is almost upon us! I can hardly believe it!! In just shy of two weeks it will be here!!! Every year I tell myself I'm going to get all my baking, etc. done early, but......somehow that never seems to happen. We usually take our vacation toward the end of October and, when we get back, it's time to start thinking about the holidays. Well, we have several birthdays in October and November, then there's Thanksgiving, and then Christmas is....well....HERE! (And this year we didn't get back until two days before Thanksgiving!!)
O.K., now that I've vented a little about my lack of time to prepare for this WONDERFUL HOLIDAY, let me say that I LOVE CHRISTMAS!!
I love how cozy and festive my house feels with all the Christmas decorations, I love being with family here and visiting family hours away. I love watching all those old Christmas movies and even some of the newer ones. (I'm a big Hallmark movie lover). And....I love all the special treats that make their appearance during the holidays. Usually you'll find me hard at work (work that I love!) baking at least twelve kinds of Italian cookies, as well as some candy treats and a special Christmas bread called Panettone. (Boy, it's hard to keep a waistline intact this time of year!)
Every year I try to add something new to my list of goodies and this year was no different. Although I come from an Italian family, I never remember having something called Panforte (pan-FOHR-tay). It's one of the most famous cakes of Siena in the Tuscany region of Italy. The word literally means "strong bread" in Italian, but this is really nothing like a bread. It's a very dense, chewy, and spicy distant cousin of fruitcake. O.K. .....I know I just lost some of you with that reference to fruitcake. If you don't like candied or dried fruit, or nuts, or spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and even pepper, then, well.....this isn't the recipe for you. But, if you do, you should really try this. As I found out while perusing my cookbooks and the Internet, there are many variations. In fact, I sat at my dining room table with more than half a dozen recipes in front of me! Decisions, decisions.......which one should I try?
I finally landed on one from the cookbook Ciao Italia by Mary Ann Esposito. It sounded interesting with the addition of cocoa and white pepper. It came out well, but I think next time I'll take it out of the oven a little sooner. Also, I'd start with half the amount of white pepper; it was a little too spicy for me.
I'll definately be trying some of the other variations, although, chances are they won't make it onto the blog this time around. If any of you have a wonderful panforte recipe you've been making, that you know is great, I'd love to hear about it. If not, I guess I'll just have to work my way through all of these that I've collected. (Poor me!)
Panforte di Siena
2/3 cup hazelnuts
1/2 cup slivered almonds
1/2 cup chopped candied orange peel
1/2 cup chopped candied lemon peel
1/4 cup Dutch-process cocoa
1/2 cup flour
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. grated nutmeg
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
1 tsp. white pepper ( I would start with 1/2 tsp. for my taste)
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup honey
The first thing to do is preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Then butter an 8" round cake pan, line it with parchment paper, and butter the paper. If you want to be authentic, use edible rice paper to line the pan, like the Italians do. If you want, you can just place a circle of rice paper on top of the parchment. That way your cake will come out pretty easily. You can find the rice paper here.
Spread the hazelnuts on a baking sheet and toast for 10 minutes, or until lightly browned. Cool and then chop coarsely with the almonds. Lower the oven temp. to 325 degrees.
Place the nuts in a bowl and add the candied peels, cocoa, flour, and spices; mix well. Set aside.
Combine the sugar and honey in a saucepan and cook, stirring with a wooden spoon, until the sugar dissolves. Bring it to a boil and cook, stirring, until it reaches the soft-ball stage, which is between 235-240 degrees F. (sorry, forgot to tell you that a candy thermometer would come in very handy for this recipe) If you don't have a thermometer, drop a bit of the mixture into very cold water. If it forms a ball that won't hold its shape when pressed with your finger, it's at the right stage. I would start checking after 2 minutes.
Pour the mixture over the dry ingredients and mix well.
Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and press evenly to spread to the edges. It's helpful to have a bowl of cold water handy to dip your fingers in. It helps with the spreading. Also, work quickly, because the mixture will get firm fast. You will end up with a batter that is only about 1/2" or so thick. That's the way it should be. Bake for 25 minutes or until just firm to the touch.
|Remember, this is somewhere between a candy and a cake. The top will not look dry.|
While still warm, run a knife around the edge and invert onto a wire rack. Carefully remove the parchment and turn right side up. If you've used the rice paper, it will have become almost part of the cake. It doesn't come off (it's edible, remember?)
Let the panforte cool completely and then dust heavily with powdered sugar. You 'll want to serve this in thin wedges....it's very rich! Wrap it well in plastic or put it in a tightly covered tin and it will last for weeks.