21 October 2009

Panforte: the Italian strong bread

I'll always remember the road trip my family took through Italy six years ago. For one thing, it was the summer of the record-breaking heat wave in Europe 2003; there was one afternoon walking through the Roman Forum which would have seen us baked alive had it not been for the copious number of drinking fountains that Rome is so well known for. That was also the summer when my family learned that we should not go on road trips together. Wow. Let's just leave some of those stories untold. But, in between heat exhaustion and emotions running high over where we were going to eat next, there were some fantastic, happy moments that impressed themselves upon me deeply.
One of them was completely unexpected. It came on a day of visiting Assisi, birthplace of St. Francis. We were walking through the town, which is perched high on a hillside in Umbria. It was an overcast day, punctuated by intermittent showers that had us ducking into churches and shop doorways every now and then. One of the shops we took refuge in was a bakery. Surrounded by a vast array of incredible-looking creations, we decided to try some panforte for a morning snack. The shopkeeper cut off a wedge for us. It was a dense cake of dried fruits, nuts, and spices...much tastier than any Clif bar but probably just as good an energy source for the day. The wedge disappeared quickly as we meandered on through the streets of Assisi.
Days later, after visits south to Rome, Pompeii, and Accadia, we turned around and drove back north to Germany. Refueling in Tuscany, we noticed an exquisite array of biscotti and cakes in the gas station and asked, if by chance, they had any panforte. Sadly, they did not, and we were informed that they only offer it during the Christmas season. That made total sense to me, as the flavors of panforte ("strong bread") are reminiscent of those of the Lebkuchen ("life cake") that my German relatives make in their bakery from September through December.

So, it being October now, I believe we are well into panforte season too. I've looked around for a good recipe, and after tweaking one, I now have a recipe that I'll be enjoying for years to come. While it is called a cake, it is really more to be enjoyed as a confection in small pieces rather than as a slice of cake eaten with a fork. This sweet, fragrantly-spiced panforte is a luscious treat, and large wedges, decoratively wrapped, would make a great holiday gift. I hope you have a chance to try it out! I think the one I made a week and a half ago is in danger of disappearing just as quickly as the one we had in Assisi.

(adapted from Gourmet magazine)

4 teaspoons unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup whole almonds, toasted
1 cup whole hazelnuts, toasted and loose skins rubbed off with a kitchen towel
1 cup (8 oz.) soft dates, each cut into 6 pieces
1 cup (8 oz.) soft dried Mission figs, each cut into 6 pieces
1/2 cup soft golden raisins (4 oz.)
1/2 cup candied lemon peel (4 oz.)
1 tsp. (packed) finely grated fresh lemon peel
3/4 cup sugar
2/3 cup honey
1 Tbs. butter

Line a 9-inch springform pan with parchment, using a round for bottom and a strip for side. (Lightly oiling the pan first will help keep the parchment paper in place.) Lightly but thoroughly grease the inside surfaces of the parchment with non-stick spray or vegetable oil.

Whisk together flour, spices, salt, and 4 teaspoons cocoa in a large bowl, then stir in nuts and fruit and lemon peel.

Bring sugar, honey, and butter to a boil in a 2-quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat, stirring until sugar is dissolved, then boil without stirring until a candy thermometer registers 238 to 240°F, about 2 minutes.

Immediately pour honey over fruit mixture and quickly stir until combined (mixture will be very thick and sticky; if it cools and hardens too quickly, you might try setting the mixing bowl over a pan of simmering water, double boiler-style, as you stir, or try carefully microwaving a few seconds at a time in between stirs). Quickly spoon mixture into springform pan, spreading evenly with back of spoon. Dampen your hands and press mixture firmly and evenly into pan to compact as much as possible. Bake in middle of oven at 300°F until edges start to rise slightly and become matte, 50 to 55 minutes.

Cool panforte completely in pan on a rack, then remove side of pan and invert. Keeping parchment paper on, wrap well in plastic wrap and seal in a plastic bag. Store chilled one week to allow flavors to meld. Keeps up to one month when stored chilled. To serve, cut with a serrated knife into small pieces.

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