Panforte Recipe - Italian Christmas Cake

This traditional, strong flavoured, rather hard sweetmeat is one those Italian Christmas treats that you will either love or hate! It’s a bit divisive, but I think it is delicious with strong cheeses or with a cup of coffee or with sweet desert wine. 

According to the official  IGP (protected Geographical Indication) classification of this medieval delicacy, two distinct versions exist. 

The white version calls for ‘0’ wheat flour, unblanched almonds, candied citrus and orange peel, nutmeg, cinnamon, honey and sugar. Vanilla and hazelnuts are optional extras.  The mixture is then placed on top of edible paper, covered with flour and baked. Once baked the surface flour is brushed off and replaced with a thick layer of icing sugar or a mixture of icing sugar and ground cinnamon and/or nutmeg.

The black version is almost identical, except that the citrus is replaced with candied melon and the mixture is much heavier on the spices, including lots of ground black pepper. It also contains walnuts, does not contain honey and is finished with a dusting of spices and cocoa powder instead of icing sugar.

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In either case, the ancient origins of this traditional Christmas delicacy from the city of Siena go back to the period between the late Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance. At the time, the famous spice merchants of Siena were amongst the most powerful in Europe and the spices, with all their reputed health benefits, were sold through the pharmacists or the religious orders.

The use of spices, which were so wildly expensive and valuable, tell us that this was strictly a treat for the rich merchants and the nobility of the city, although it is said that whilst the city was under Florentine siege in 1955, all the citizens of Siena were saved from starvation until the city was freed by the daily distribution of small slices of Panforte. 

The first record of the spicy sweetmeat appears in 1205 and tells us it had a tendency to turn rather sour over time, hence known as “panis fortis” or strong bread.

A nun called Sister Leta concocted the original recipe in the well-appointed kitchens of the Montecellesi Abbey. Thereafter, the sweetmeat gained enormous popularity very quickly, finding its place on the tables of the most sumptuous banquets in Genova, Rome, Venice and Innsbruck.

Natale Pepi opened the first factory producing Panforte commercially in 1810, although at the time only the black version was produced. The white version was created in 1879 on the occasion of the visit of Queen Margherita when she came to Siena for the Palio and was re-named Panforte Margherita in her honour.

Traditionally, Panforte would always be made in September, when dried fruits were plentiful at the end of the summer, to then be eaten at Christmas time once it had matured.

According to popular folklore, one Christmas Eve a long time ago, a loaf of ordinary bread transformed itself into a Panforte – a little miracle, which for the city of Siena symbolised the birth of Jesus.  

My recipe below is an amalgamation of the two original historical recipes. For a chocolate version, add 2 to 3 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder to the flour and dust the finished Panforte with a mixture of icing sugar and cocoa powder.

This recipe is by Valentina Harris. See more of Valentina's Italian Christmas recipes plus classic Italian dishes such as homemade pasta.

Ingredients for Panforte

How to make Panforte

  1. Blanch and peel 150g of the almonds, toast them in the oven or under the grill until golden, and then chop them coarsely. 
  2. Transfer to a food processor with the chopped mixed candied peel, the walnuts and candied orange peel. 
  3. Scoop out of the bowl and place on a work surface. Combine the remaining unblanched almonds, all the flour and the spices. 
  4. Melt the sugar and honey together to the ball stage (120°C). Whilst still hot and liquid, pour it over the dry ingredients. Mix well with a spatula and - once cooled enough - with your hands. You can add a little more flour or a little more honey if you need to adjust the texture.
  5. Press into a lined shallow 20cm tin or 2 smaller tins (you will have lined them with the hosts or edible paper if desired). 
  6. Bake at Gas mark 2/300°F/150°C for about half an hour or until the edges are well browned. Cool, and then remove from the tin. Store in an airtight container loosely wrapped in wax paper or non-stick foil.
  7. Dust generously with the cinnamon and icing sugar mixture before serving. 
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