Panforte, or Siena Cake, is a dense fudgy candy-like cake filled with dried fruit, spices, and nuts and topped with a dusting of icing sugar. The traditional Panforte started in Italy, and has been around since medieval times. This modern chocolate Panforte recipe is fairly simple to make and is perfect for Christmas.
I can’t believe I’m Italian-Australian and I’ve yet to share a Panforte recipe with you all. The traditional Panforte, also known as Siena Cake, is a chocolate, chewy, candy-like cake filled with dried fruit, spices and nuts.
Panforte originated in Siena, Tuscany, in medieval times. Originally it was a very luxurious cake filled with expensive spices, which the rich people of Italy ate at special events like Christmas.
The name Panforte comes from Pane meaning bread, and forte meaning strong. It’s a short round cake without eggs or other rising agents. Instead the cake is held together with caramelised sugar and honey, giving the texture its signature chewy and dense qualities.
In the late 1800s the Panforte recipe changed to coincide with a special visit by Queen Margherita of Italy. Originally, Panforte contained a lot of pepper. For the Queen, however, the pepper was replaced with icing sugar and the flavour became more delicate.
Fun side fact: the Margherita pizza is allegedly also named after Queen Margherita. The red tomato sauce, green basil and white balls of mozzarella symbolize the colours of the Italian flag and the little bits of mozzarella on top also look like daisies.
That’s no coincidence: margherita in Italian means daisy. I heard this story from some proud citizens of Naples last time I was in Italy, so take that as you will.
I wish I had a treasured family recipe for panforte that’s been handed down across the generations for you. But our family is from the Isernia region of Molise (Abruzzi), not Tuscany. Our history is a little more humble.
Basically, if Buzzfeed was around back then we’d be writing 12 Amazing Meals with Goat, or 13 Incredible Tricks with Polenta listicles.
So instead I did some research and put together a recipe for a more historically traditional panforte. Originally I tried a simpler and more modern recipe that took shortcuts by using apricot jam and melted chocolate, but the perfectionist Italian in me was dissatisfied with the results.
I recommend having a candy thermometer on hand to help you make this Christmas Panforte recipe. You’ll need to bring sugar and honey to the soft ball stage, which happens at a narrow temperature window.
I flavoured this Siena cake with heavily toasted almonds, dried dates, figs and Australian sultanas. I also included a pinch of black pepper as tradition demands, but you could always leave this out if you’re not fond of the idea.
Serve this Christmas Panforte in thin wedges along with a pot of Italian black coffee or an espresso.
HOW TO MAKE CHRISTMAS PANFORTE
Click to watch how to make Christmas Panforte
Makes: one 23cm round cake, serves 8-12
23cm springform cake tin
150g Caster Sugar
150g Plain Flour
250g Blanched Almonds, toasted
100g Dried Dates, chopped
100g Dried Figs, chopped
50g Sultanas or raisins
2 teaspoons ground Cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground Coriander seeds
½ teaspoon ground Cardamom
½ teaspoon ground Nutmeg
1 pinch Salt
1 pinch Pepper
½ teaspoon Vanilla Extract
30g Cocoa Powder
Icing Sugar, to dust
Preheat the oven to 150 degrees Celsius (130 fan-forced; 300F). Line the base of a 23cm (9in) springform tin with baking paper and grease the base and sides with non-stick spray.
To a large mixing bowl add the flour, toasted almonds, dates, figs, sultanas, cinnamon, coriander, cardamom, nutmeg, salt, pepper, vanilla extract and cocoa powder. Stir all together until evenly combined.
To a medium saucepan add the caster sugar and honey. Heat them gently together over low heat, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Brush down any sugar that has coated the side of the saucepan with a pastry brush dipped in water.
Increase heat to medium and stop stirring. Let the mixture come to the “soft ball” stage. The soft ball stage is when the boiling sugar reaches 112-115 Celsius (233 – 240 F). It should take about 10 minutes to reach this stage. Use the candy thermometer to measure the temperature of the mixture. Take the mixture off the heat immediately when it reaches this temperature.
Working quickly, add all of the dry ingredients into the saucepan of hot sugar syrup and stir together briskly with a wooden spoon. The mixture will become very thick and hard to stir. Make sure you get into the edges of the saucepan and incorporate all of the sugar.
Scoop out the mixture from the saucepan into the prepared cake tin. Press the mixture down firmly to the edges with your wooden spoon. Wet the spoon with water occasionally to help you spread the mixture evenly.
Place the cake tin on the middle rack of the oven and bake for 30 minutes. Be careful, the cake tin is hot BEFORE you put it in the oven!!!
Remove the cake tin from the oven when ready and allow the panforte to cool completely in the pan. Release the cake from the tin when cool. Sprinkle the top with icing sugar. Rub the icing sugar on the top of the cake, and dust more on top for decoration.
Serve the panforte in thin wedges with coffee.
- The “soft ball” stage of boiling sugar is when the mixture reaches 112-115 degrees Celsius (233-240F). It’s called the soft ball stage, as a drop of the boiling sugar in cold water will form a “soft ball” of caramel.
- If you take the boiled sugar mixture too far by boiling it beyond the soft ball stage, the cake will have a harder texture.
- You can substitute the dried fruit and nuts with your favourite flavours instead. Just keep the total weight of fruit and nuts the same
- This cake will keep for two weeks at least in an airtight container at room temperature