Serving: one 10-inch confection, creating about 18 wedges
Panforte di Siena or "strong bread" of Siena, can be traced back to medieval times, when this firm and spicy cake became identified as a holiday sweet produced by the bakers in the province of Siena, in the region of Tuscany.
Traditionally, the dark, dense, and chewy round encloses a chain of wintry ingredients, such as nuts, spices, candied fruits, and cocoa powder (for color rather than as a flavoring agent). A honey-based syrup binds the dried fruits and nuts into a sweetmeat-like confection frequently baked directly on a sheet of edible rice paper. The top of the completed disk is then covered in confectioners' sugar or marzipan.
Richly candy-like and compelling, this is a sweet that I have made my own.
The recipe you have here uses a mix of ambrosial dried fruits—dates, prunes, nectarines, cherries, red flame raisins, pluots, and such—and one glazed fruit, plus walnuts and pumpkin seeds. Hard, less-than-moist dried fruits have no place in this confection, for on baking, the fruits will turn so tough that the sweet will be difficult to chew; the definition and taste that a combination of walnuts and pumpkin seeds brings about really appeals to me, yet other nuts, such as pecans, give way unappealingly (that is, soften slightly) and get lost in the translation. A little butter and two tablespoons of a sweet dessert wine have been added to the spiced honeyed syrup; in my kitchen, the trio of spices is boiled directly in the syrup—rather than sifted with the flour—so that the brilliant flavor of each is expressed. A refinement of baking powder is added to improve the dessert's overall baked texture. Unsweetened medium-flake coconut combines with the fruity blend nicely, and contributes a plush element of "chew." I love bites of moist and chewy fruit slice along with sips of Essensia.
This panforte has a permanent place on my holiday table, and here's hoping that even those who revile fruitcake will embrace it and call it theirs.
Honeyed Fruit and Nut Mixture
Ahead: freshly baked, within 3 days; for longer storage (up to 3 weeks), and if you are not serving the panforte within 2 or 3 days of baking, omit the confectioners' sugar coating and refrigerate the sweet resting on a sheet of parchment paper in the container (enrobe the sweet with confectioners' sugar just before serving)
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.
Film the inside of a 10-inch springform pan (2-1/4 inches deep) or false-bottomed round 10-inch cake pan (3 inches deep) with nonstick oil spray or softened butter. Line the bottom of either pan with a round of ovenproof parchment paper and film the surface with the spray or softened butter.
For the fruit and nut mixture, sift the flour and baking powder onto a sheet of waxed paper.
Place the granulated sugar, honey, butter, Essensia, nutmeg, cardamom, allspice, cinnamon, and salt in a heavy, medium-size saucepan (preferably enameled cast iron). Cover and set over low heat for 10 to 12 minutes to dissolve the sugar, mixing slowly 2 or 3 times. Uncover the saucepan, raise the heat to moderately high, and bring to the boil. Boil the mixture steadily (at a moderate, but not overly anxious boil) until it reaches 245 degrees F on a candy or instant-read thermometer.
In the meantime, combine the dates, prunes, pluots, golden raisins, glazed orange peel, papaya, nectarines, cherries, red flame raisins, grated orange peel, coconut, walnuts, and pumpkin seeds in a large mixing bowl. Resift the flour mixture over the fruits and toss well. Add the vanilla extract to the hot honey syrup and pour over the fruit-nut-flour mixture; stir to combine well. This must be done very quicky, or the syrup will tighten considerably and firm up before all of the fruits, walnuts, and pumpkin seeds are coated. It is best to use a sturdy heatproof spatula or a lightly buttered flat wooden paddle for mixing.
Immediately turn the mixture into the prepared pan, pressing it lightly to smooth it out into an even layer, using a sturdy heatproof spatula.
Bake the sweet in the preheated oven for 45 minutes, or until set. The top will not look as glossy or moist as it did going in, but it will retain some of its luster; the edges should be bubbly and jammy-looking. The fruits on the surface will have a glazed, caramel-like look—delicious.
Cool the sweet in the pan on a cooling rack for 15 to 20 minutes. Carefully nudge a round-bladed palette knife all the way around between the cake and the edges of the pan. If you are using the springform pan, open the hinge and remove the outer ring, allowing the confection to stand on the circular metal base. Cool for 30 minutes. If you are using the false-bottomed cake pan, gently and carefully lift the confection by the bottom, pushing it up and out to unmold, leaving it on its metal base. Cool completely. Carefully dislodge the sweet from its base, peel away the parchment paper, place on a clean sheet of parchment paper or on a sheet of release-surface aluminum foil, and cool completely.
Sprinkle half of the confectioners' sugar on a sheet of parchment paper, set the sweet on, and shuffle it around to coat the bottom. Sprinkle the remaining confectioners' sugar on the top. Serve the sweet sliced into wedges. Store in an airtight cake keeper.
The best and most remarkable variety and quality of premium dried fruits comes from Bella Viva Orchards (see page 500 of the book); not to be missed are the Betty Anne plums, pitted Moyer prunes, Dapple Dandy pluots, Flavor Grenade pluots, tangy apricots, sweet apricots, white peaches, yellow peaches, white figs, pitted Bing cherries, muscat raisins, jumbo golden raisins, nectarines, and pears.
Natural unsweetened medium-flake coconut, also known as unsulphured medium shred macaroon coconut, is available at Whole Foods Market and other premium full-scale markets; the panforte is just as delicious without the addition of coconut, but you'll need to make up for its absence by adding 2/3 cup nuts or seeds.
Essensia is a sweet wine derived from the orange muscat grape—its bouquet of orange is underpinned by the light, fruity scent that hints of apricot, making it ideal for adding to dried fruit-based batters, pastry cream, icing, and glazes, or for serving with biscotti; Essensia, produced and bottled by Andrew Quady (Madera, CA), is simply exceptional.
Although not essential to do, I prefer to bake the panforte in a moist oven environment to encourage the sweet to remain pliable and very chewy even after it has cooled, and do so by placing two 8 by 4 by 3-inch loaf pans half-filled with boiling water on the oven rack on either side of the panforte; if your oven is not wide enough to accommodate both the loaf pans and the cake on one level, bake the cake on the middle-level rack and, in place of the two loaf pans, use a 13 by 9 by 2-inch baking pan, half-filled with boiling water, set on the lower-third-level rack.
For longer storage, you can hold the entire panforte—uncoated with confectioners' sugar—as soon as it has cooled in an airtight cake keeper for up to 2 weeks; a few hours before serving, slice and lightly coat the triangles with the confectioners' sugar.
Use a finely serrated knife to cut the confection.
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This page created January 2012
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