Raising the question “what should I bake?” is a dangerous task at the best of times. It puts one in a particularly perilous position. What if one actually doesn’t want to make what is suggested, and in some cases demanded (I’m looking at you here, little sis)? You’d think I’d have learned by now. Hmph. Not the case. My younger sister’s response is often obscure, vague, or difficult and downright complicated to make. In her world of baked goods time-frames and effort required don’t exist. Dad’s tends to border on predictable, if not repetitive. Old favourites such as Bran Muffins or Zucchini Bread. The Brampton ‘classics’. When I raised the question with S and B mid last week I honestly didn’t know what response to expect. Conventional? Complicated? Kooky? Where does the Italian ‘cake’ Panforte sit? Somewhere amongst all three.
The closest encounter I’d had with Panforte was to come across Siena Cake (as far as I can tell it’s the same thing – the Italians like to confuse us!), in my Margaret Fulton’s Baking: The Ultimate Collection. Never tasted it and didn’t know what went in, apart from chocolatey substances and nuts. Maybe dried fruit? Or was that in those biscuits I’d bookmarked last week? S hunted down a recipe she’d tried a few years back, warning me that if you under-cook the Panforte, it won’t set properly and if you overcook it, you’ll break your teeth on it. Ok-ay. Not exactly words of comfort. Best thing to do? Dive straight in.
Mixed peel (not too much, else that’s all you’ll taste), cranberries and dried peaches (I can’t help but alter recipes) go in a bowl along with toasted almonds and hazelnuts. Brazil nuts would have been a nice touch too, however B was adamant that I didn’t stray too far from tradition. Season with cinnamon, allspice and S’s secret weapon, white pepper. It provides a fantastic zing and drawing out the other flavours. Toss in a tablespoon of cocoa powder and some all purpose flour for substance. Melt a hunk of dark chocolate (at least 70% if you want to do the thing justice) until it’s nice and viscous, and set aside. Easy part done.
Now things get slightly more fiddly. Beat the sugar and honey together in a small pot and set over a low flame. Once it’s all melty, allow the sugar mix to bubble away until it reaches 116C (240F), or a ‘soft ball’ consistency. To check whether it’s hit that crucial point, drop a teensy bit into a small bowl of cold water. If it’s ready it will form a soft ball. Bet you didn’t guess that. And I need not say a candy thermometer is your best friend at this stage! Now this process can happen quite rapidly, so don’t take your eyes off it. Not even to reach for that extra square of chocolate you snuck from the packet. It can wait. Truly.
As soon as the sugar hits soft ball (other signs include a golden hue), pour the lot on top of the fruit and nut mix, along with your melted chocolate. Healthy indeed. Work quickly, quickly now and employ some serious elbow grease to mix it all together (the sugar will begin to stiffen almost immediately). Press the mixture – you can’t really call it cake batter, you’ll see what I mean – into your spring form cake pan with damp hands. Because we’re organised we’ve already greased it, lined it with baking paper and lined it again with edible rice paper (from Asian supermarkets). The rice paper is optional but highly recommended. It will make your life a LOT easier when it comes to removing the Panforte from the tin. If you can source it, use it. Nuff said.
Into the oven we go. The waiting game begins. As it nears the half hour mark start watching it like a hawk. It’s difficult to tell exactly when the Panforte is cooked as the heat keeps the chocolate soft. Small bubbles or blisters should start to appear on the surface. Go off instinct. You can do it. Set the pan on a heat mat and leave to rest for fifteen minutes before removing the spring form walls. Lift the Panforte off the pan’s base and slide onto a wire rack. Melt more chocolate (it’s an indulgent recipe, okay?) and smear on top. Leave to cool completely, before slicing. If you hadn’t yet worked it out, this is a super rich cake/confection. That means small slices. Small.
Ever so slightly chewy, rich, nutty, chocolatey, citrussy (enough adjectives?) and laced with spice, it’s heaven on a plate. You can understand why it’s usually reserved for Christmas and Christmas only – it’s one helluva sugar hit. Addictive too – it’ll keep for up to 2 months if stored correctly, though I sincerely doubt it’ll last that long!
Makes 1x 20cm circular ‘slab’.
1 cup hazelnuts (skins removed), coarsely chopped and toasted
1 cup blanched almond slivers, toasted
¼ cup mixed peel
1/3 cup dried peaches, chopped
1/3 cup dried cranberries
½ cup plain flour
1 tbsp cocoa powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp ground allspice
¼ tsp ground white pepper (up to a ½ tsp if you’re daring)
100g dark chocolate (70% is best), roughly chopped
½ cup white sugar
2/3 cup clear honey
150g dark chocolate (70% is best), roughly chopped
Preheat the oven to 150C. Grease and carefully line a 20cm spring-form cake tin. For extra non-stick security (I highly recommend doing this), line the tin a second time with edible rice paper (so that it sits inside the baking paper).
In a large bowl combine the toasted hazelnuts and almonds, mixed peel, dried peaches and dried cranberries. Sift together the plain flour, cocoa powder, ground cinnamon, allspice and white pepper. Stir though the fruit and nuts, ensuring that the fruit is well coated.
Place the dark chocolate in a heatproof bowl and either melt over a pot of simmering water, stirring regularly, or in the microwave according to packet directions. Set aside.
Whisk the honey and sugar together in a small saucepan. Place over a medium to low heat and cook until melted and the sugar has dissolved, stirring all the while. Stop stirring and allow the mixture to boil until it reaches 116C (240F) when tested with a candy thermometer or until a small sample forms a soft ball when dropped into cold water.
Immediately remove the pan from the heat. Scrape the contents into the bowl of flour/dried fruit/nuts, along with the melted chocolate. Stir quickly with a wooden spoon to combine (the mixture will begin to stiffen almost immediately. You may need to work the mixture quite hard to ensure that all of the flour disappears. It will eventually!
As soon as the flour is incorporated, transfer to your prepared tin and press in with damp hands to form an even layer. Bake for 30-35 minutes or until the top is ever so slightly blistered. It will be a little difficult to tell when it is done as the chocolate will remain soft due to the heat, so go off instinct!
Set the tin on a wire rack and leave to rest for 15 minutes. Remove the wall of the cake tin and slide the cake off the tin’s base and directly onto the wire rack. It’s wise to remove the baking paper at the same time. The rice paper will stick to the Panforte and provide a ‘protective’ outer layer. Allow to cool for a further 15 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare your topping.
Place the dark chocolate in a heatproof bowl and either melt over a pot of simmering water, stirring regularly, or in the microwave according to packet directions.
Pour the melted chocolate onto the centre of the Panforte and use a spatula to smooth out the chocolate so that it evenly covers the top. Leave to cool/set completely.
Once set, cut small slivers/wedges of the Panforte and dust the top with icing sugar if you wish.
Wrap the remaining ‘slab’ tightly in cling film and store in a cool dry place. Will keep for up to 2 months, stored in this manner.
Source: Adapted from Joy of Baking.