One of my favourite Christmassy things is panforte and I, also, love Nurnberger lebkuchen. It hails from Siena which is probably my favourite city in Italy. There really is something special about sitting out in the Piazza del Campo, looking across the amphitheatre shape of the cobbled open across to the Palazzo Publico. Perhaps it is all a bit too idyllic and I am lucky never to have seem the Palio with its crowds and thundering horses which would distract from this view. Anyway Siena is the capital of panforte.
While I went on the hunt for a panforte recipe and came across a recipe for pan pepato, a peppered biscuit-cake. In fact, it appears that the history of both panforte and pan pepato are intertwined, with both coming from the region – there are various stories as to whether pan pepato came first then was rejigged in 1879 to make a cake, panforte, in honour of a visit by Queen Margharita of Savoy, while others say panforte came first and Sister Berta fiddled with the recipe to make a more wholesome breadcake, pan pepato, when Siena was besieged in 1554.
Pan pepato is a chocolatey and spicy biscuit cake that is more similar in flavour and texture to lebkuchen than anyone seems to indicate. This suggests to me that this style of sweet baked goods was pretty ubiquitous across Europe in the Middle Ages, as there is no raising agent in it as would be found in most modern biscuits. Then in a similar vein to British Christmas items, it is heavy on those grocery items that were really expensive in the past – dried nuts, dried fruits and spices. They also contain chocolate or cocoa, so probably could not have included these flavours before 1585 when the first commercial shipments of chocolate were recorded nor perhaps until the mid 17th century when cocoa became more freely available.
It is pretty easy to make and is a good use of lots of unusual spices, giving the cake a decently warming aftertaste from the black pepper and cubeb pepper while it has the festive flavours of cassia, nutmeg and cloves coming through. I like it but it is definitely an adult treat – our kids were decidedly unimpressed and gave that classic “What is that, Dad?” look after the one mouse-like, little bite.
Note that some recipes suggest that you boil the sugar mix to the soft ball stage, but I did not need that at all, and question whether that is just a modern adjustment to the recipe, e.g Waitrose, but these exclude chocolate and use cocoa instead.
75g / 2½oz sultanas
25g / ¾oz dried figs, chopped into sultana sized pieces
125g / 3½oz hazelnuts
125g / 3½oz almonds
50g / ¾oz pine nuts, chopped
100g / 3½oz chopped mixed peel
100g / 3½oz plain dark chocolate, chopped into medium sized chunks
200g / 7oz runny honey
2tbsp unsalted butter
80g / 2¾oz plain flour, sifted
1tsp ground black pepper
1tsp ground cassia (or ground cinnamon)
½tsp ground nutmeg
¼tsp ground cloves
¼tsp ground cubeb pepper
1tbsp icing sugar, sifted
1tsp pink peppercorns, crushed (optional)
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F.
Boil the kettle and pour hot water over the sultanas and chopped figs to soak them. Leave to infuse for 15 minutes, then drain. I made a pot of strong black chai tea (you could use any strong black tea), and infuse them in this; it is not traditionally correct, but it worked well, or perhaps you could soak it overnight in a port or sweet white wine, ideally a vin santo.
Put the whole nuts on an ungreased baking tray at 180C/350F and toast for about 5 minutes, which will dry the skins. Roll these in a clean tea towel for a couple of minutes to remove the skins. Place the pine nuts on the baking tray and toast for about 3 minutes until they start to colour. Leave all the nuts to cool down, then chop them roughly.
Turn the oven down to 170C/325F. Lightly grease two baking trays; use the ones that you used earlier but make sure they have cooled down.
Tip the toasted chopped nuts, soaked fruit, mixed peel and ground spices into a mixing bowl. Give them all a good stir to thoroughly mix it all together.
Weigh the runny honey in the saucepan, then add the unsalted butter. Over a medium heat, heat these until the butter has melted. Take off the heat, add the dark chocolate pieces and stir until all the chocolate has melted.
Pour the chocolate sauce into the nut-fruit mixing bowl and stir thoroughly. Add the plain flour and mix everything together until it starts to clump.
Spoon the mix into 8 or 10 scoops, roll into balls then place each onto the greased baking tray. Flatten the top of each of the balls until each is about 2½ cm thick (1 inch).
Bake for 20-25 minutes until firm. Take from the oven and allow them to cool completely before removing them.
Dust the tops very generously with icing sugar. Sprinkle with the crushed pink peppercorns if using them.
They will keep for many weeks and make good Christmas gifts.