Judy Francini’s Fig and Walnut Panforte

Judy's Fig and Walnut Panforte

Judy’s Fig and Walnut Panforte

Panforte is Siena’s signature Christmas pastry, a concoction made from candied fruit, nuts, honey and spices whose origins fade into the mists of time. One theory holds that it was first made by a nun who discovered mice had gnawed open the bags of spices knights returning from the Crusades had given the convent.

To throw out that much wealth — remember, spices were worth considerably more than gold at the time — was unthinkable, so she combined them with candied fruit, almonds, nuts, honey, and just enough flour for it all to hold together, shaped the mixture into a disk, and put it to bake.

It smelled so good when it emerged from the oven that she hesitated to taste it, fearing that if she took a bite she’d be unable to stop, thus giving in to gluttony. And as she hesitated, a cat walked in and said, “What are you waiting for?”

Cats don’t talk but Satan does, and the nun dumped the cake over him; he vanished in an acrid cloud of smoke. By the time the other nuns came, drawn by her screams, the cake’s aroma had eliminated Satan’s stench, and the Mother Superior, wondering what in the world could possibly best The Evil One, ran her finger over the bottom of the pan, and… The Sienese have been making Panforte ever since.

Most published recipes make large quantities, and while one can reduce them (as I have here), they still call for ingredients that are not easy to find, for example good quality candied citron, candied orange peel, and squash rind. Judy Francini has instead developed a recipe that uses dried figs, which are much easier to find, and chopped walnuts instead of almonds.

While it isn’t strictly traditional, it is very tasty, and you will find this sort of variation on absolutely traditional panforte in Siena’s pastry shops.

So… What will you need to make panforte?

Traditional recipes call for several pounds of almonds and proportionate volumes of the other ingredients, and result in panforti that are the diameter of a wagon wheel and up to three fingers thick. Judy’s recipe yields a much more manageable quantity.

Before we get to it, one very important point. Proportions are important in panforte, and since the weights of ingredients such as a cup of chopped dried figs will vary considerably depending upon packing density, Judy heartily recommends using a kitchen scale, and measuring the ingredients by weight.

  • 500 grams (18 ounces) dried figs
  • 500 grams (18 ounces) chopped walnuts
  • 220 grams (about 1 cup) granulated sugar
  • About a half a cup of acacia honey, which is delicate. Any other delicate honey will work, but do keep in mind that quality honey (as opposed to the commercial stuff in bear-shaped squeeze bottles) will give much better results
  • 3/4 cup (about 90 grams) flour
  • 2 tablespoons pumpkin pie spice mixture or mixed spices (this is discussed anon)
  • A healthy grind from a pepper mill
  • 2 tablespoons bitter cocoa
  • Confectioner’s sugar
  • Oven parchment

Preheat your oven to 360 F (180 C)

Begin by combining the sugar and honey in a small pot and setting the mixture to heat over a moderate flame. While you don’t have to watch it closely you do have to keep an eye on it because if it overheats it can catch fire.

While it is heating stem and chop the figs — not too finely — and put the pieces in a bowl.

Next, chop the walnuts, again not too finely, and add them to the bowl too.

The bowl Judy used is a traditional mottled green-and-white glazed terracotta mixing bowl of the sort one finds in any Tuscan farmhouse, and it brings up a point: if your kitchen is cold, warm the bowl if it will absorb heat (plastic bowls won’t), because if you don’t the honey mixture will stick to the sides of the bowl rather than incorporate with the nuts.

The next step is to add the droghe, which are not what one might think, but rather spices, which were once sold by the apothecary. The traditional mixture is fairly complex — one recipe for spezie fini calls for:

  • 50 grams coriander seeds
  • 10 grams cloves
  • 30 grams mace
  • 10 grams freshly grated nutmeg

All whirred to a powder in a spice grinder. Of this mixture you will then need 2 tablespoons.

Judy suggests as a substitute 2 tablespoons pumpkin pie spice mix.

Next, add 2 heaping tablespoons bitter cocoa powder, which will provide flavor and also darken the panforte. And the flour. Mix well.

By now the honey and sugar will be a bubbling syrup whose wonderful aroma fills the kitchen. Add it to the nut mixture and mix using a spatula lest you burn yourself (remember the bit about warming the bowl if need be).

As soon as the syrup has cooled enough to be manageable, set the spatula aside and use your hands.

And then turn the nut mixture out onto your work surface and knead it briefly.

The traditional shape for panforte in Siena is round. That’s what you’ll find in the pastry shops. However, a round panforte can only be cut into wedges. If you shape your panforte mixture into a rectangle, you’ll be able to cut it into bars when it emerges from the oven.

Tradition also dictates that panforte be cooked on wafers, which are very similar to communion wafers but a little thinner. Finding wafers of this kind is not easy, so Judy simply shapes her panforte on oven parchment, and sets the shaped panforte on a baking sheet.

Into the oven for about a half hour — what you are doing is setting it — and then remove it. When it has cooled, dust it with powdered sugar and it’s done!

This recipe, Illustrated

Two more traditional recipes, Panforte Margherita and Panforte Nero

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Categories: Holiday dishes, Italian Cakes and Pies, Tuscan Cakes, Biscotti and Sweets

Author:Cosa Bolle in Pentola

Italy boasts an astonishing number of varietals, denominations, and wines, and tremendous changes are sweeping the land. New wines are being created, new DOCs are being introduced, and the existing denominations are overhauling their regulations both to reflect the practices adopted by their member wineries and to favor improvements in quality. Even the most staid and stolid region can flower seemingly overnight, emerging with exciting new wines and wineries that require rewriting the enological maps and rethinking one's positions. And, of course, recipes too, because cuisine and wine are closely intertwined and it's difficult to imagine one without the other.

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