Summer is almost over but not quite. School starts again in a few days. To say we were treated to nice warm weather would be overstating it, but personally, I prefer a bit of a breeze when we are travelling on route to Belgium and the Netherlands on day-trips. One such day-trip always leads us to visit the Exotic Market in Antwerp, Belgium and there a visit to my favorite mobile coffee roaster has become a must. During my last visit to the Market, the lovely Alfio "an Italian in Belgium with the passion of [sic] coffee" recommended an Ethiopian coffee to me and I happily followed his recommendation, bought a bag of his wonderfully fragrant coffee beans, roasted on sight in his coffee truck, happily sipped a warming, milky cappuccino and glanced at the coloful fruit and veggie stalls all spread out over the Theaterplein, the rather large area where the Exotic Market takes place every Saturday.
The next day, I contacted Alfio per Instagram - the fun part is that I posted a picture of his coffee truck a while back and we have been following each other´s accounts since - to get more information about the coffee beans that I bought. And I was wondering what kinds of flavors would complement his wonderful coffee the best - Panforte came to my mind, immediately, it is a cool summer after all and the strong character of Panforte turned out to be a wonderful complement to his Ethopian organic coffee which Alfio comments as follows: "Ethiopia Sidamo, a superb coffee from Ethiopia that has a unique flavour, mild, spicy and wine-like with floral aroma". Ethiopia Sidamo is a type of Arabica coffee of single origin grown exclusively in the Sidamo Province of Ethiopia.
Panforte or as its is also referred to Panforte di Siena is a traditional Italian treat that somewhat resembles fruitcake or German gingerbread (Lebkuchen). It is a flat, yet chunky, rich, boldly spiced indulgence, dense with toasted nuts and dried fruit or candied fruit peel. It may date back to 13th century Siena, in Italy's Tuscany region. Documents from 1205 show that panforte was paid to the monks and nuns of a local monastery as a tax which was due on the seventh of February that year.
Literally, panforte means "strong bread" which refers to the spicy flavor. The original name of panforte was "panpepato" (peppered bread), due to black pepper used in the cake. There are references to the Crusaders carrying panforte, a durable confection, with them on their quests, and to the use of panforte in surviving sieges.
But do not let its humble looks deceive you. A dark, bumpy appearance barely concealed by a dusting of icing sugar, panforte is a most delicious thing. It it not really a cake it is actually more like soft, chewy, heavily spiced nougat chock-full with toasted almonds, hazelnuts and a copious amount of candied peel or dried fruit.
The process of making panforte is fairly simple. You toast the nuts (hazelnuts and almonds are traditional) until they are fragrant and golden. Then you chop the nuts very roughly or leave them whole and dice the dried fruit or candied peel. You then mix together the flour, cocoa, spices, nuts and fruit.
Now you make a syrup of sugar and honey. You warm the sugar and honey gently until they’ve dissolved into a syrup. Now working quickly, you pour the syrup onto the dry ingredients and stir until everything comes together into a sticky mass. Now using a spoon and your hands, you press the mixture down into a shallow baking pan you have lined with rice paper or baking parchment. Then you simply bake your panforte for about 30 minutes. Once it is cool you dust it heavily with icing sugar - which always reminds me of the abundant dusting of icing sugar on my German Stollen (here).
Personally, I have a definite weakness for toasted almonds and hazelnuts, dried friuts such as figs and sour cherries, heavily spiced confections, and medieval undertones. As Gillian Riley notes in her Oxford Companion to Italian Food, in the 1500s panforte was said to have „strengthening sweetness and stimulating spiciness“…now what more could one ask for...
If you ask me, this fabulous chocolate confection should not only be an Italian Christmas favorite, and a great homemade festive gift, it should be eaten year-round, best eaten after a big meal with a wonderfully fragrant espresso or espresso macchiato, brewed with coffee beans from your favorite coffee roaster, like the one you will find when visiting the Antwerp Exotic Market (for more info on the market, visit my blog post here and for more info on the lovely coffee I used visit Alfio´s site here)
Late Summer Panforte
- Vegetable oil, for greasing the baking pan
- 40g unsweetened cocoa powder, plus extra for dusting (use Dutch process cocoa powder)
- 100g dark quality chocolate, chopped - I like to use a high-quality chocolate with 70 per cent cocoa solids, with deep cherry tones
- 150g toasted almonds, coarsely chopped or left whole
- 150g toasted hazelnuts, coarsely chopped or left whole
- 100g AP (plain) flour
- 200g dried fruits such as figs and sour cherries that I used OR candied mixed peel, chopped
- a pinch of fine sea salt
- 1/2 tsp ground Ceylon cinnamon
- ¼ tsp ground nutmeg
- ¼ tsp ground allspice
- ¼ tsp ground cloves
- ¼ tsp ground mace
- ¼ tsp ground coriander
- ¼ tsp ground black pepper
- 200g superfine baking (caster) sugar
- 200g clear honey (I used orange blossom)
- icing sugar, for dusting
- Heat your oven to 150°C (300°F).
- Line the base of a 22cm (8 or 8.5 inch) cake pan (springform pan) with oiled baking parchment paper, and dust the base and sides with cocoa powder.
- In a small bowl set over a pan of simmering water, melt the chopped chocolate.
- In a large bowl, mix the cocoa, nuts, flour, dried fruit, salt and spices.
- Gently heat the sugar and honey in a pan until the sugar has dissolved, then cook over a higher heat for three minutes.
- Pour the syrup and melted chocolate into the nut mixture and stir to combine. NOTE: it will be very sticky.
- Use a firm spatula to scrape the mix into the prepared baking pan and, once cool enough, wet your hands and smooth the top so the surface is flat and even.
- Bake for about 30 to 35 minutes.
- Remove from the oven, transfer the pan to a cooling rack and leave to cool in the pan.
- Turn out the panforte, peel off the parchment paper and dust the top with icing sugar, rubbing it all over with dry hands so the baked panforte is completely covered and white.
There are many shops in Italy producing panforte, each recipe being their jealously guarded interpretation of the original confection and packaged in distinctive wrapping. Usually a small wedge is served with coffee or a dessert wine after a meal, though some enjoy it with their coffee at breakfast.
In Siena, which is regarded as the panforte capital of Italy, it is sometimes said that panforte should properly contain seventeen different ingredients. This is said to link back to the number of districts within the city walls of Siena. It means that depending on the recipe you use, you could be forced to add a bit of variety in terms of the ingredients. In my recipe, if you count the mixed fruit as two different ingredients, I did indeed get to the magic number. What does matter, however, is that if you’re going to make panforte, you need to go with the right ingredients and try to use high-quality chocolate, Dutch process cocoa powder, good nuts and your favorite dried fruit or candied peel.
To serve the panforte, cut into thin wedges with a large sharp knife. The cutting will take some force, so be careful.
This traditional Italian nut and dried fruit chunky, sweet and chewy treat is not only delicious, I assure you, but it is also highly addictive. It will keep at room temperature for up to three months if wrapped well in plastic wrap and up to a year if kept in the fridge. Of course, you won’t be keeping a batch around for that long because it is that good, especially when you have friends and family around to enjoy it along with you.
Therefore, I highly recommend you have some on hand all year round, no matter the occasion. Panforte is easy to prepare and in my Late Summer Version the dried figs are absolutely delicious in combination with the dried sour cherries that harmonize so well with the dark chocolate - a perfect match for Alfio´s Ethiopian Sidamo coffee.