On our visit to Italy two years ago, my husband David and I spent some time in Tuscany, in an ancient hilltop town called Montalcino. We enjoyed several quiet mornings of cappuccino there, at a table on the sunny Piazza del Popolo. There was a very cute little shop, Pasticceria Mariuccia, tucked away in a stone wall on this piazza, and one day we wandered inside after having admired their beautiful sweets in the window for many days. The glass case was filled with the most wonderful looking cantucci and millefeuille and amaretti and ossi de morto, but what was most interesting were the lumpy flat cakes on the bottom shelf that were covered densely with a dark powder of cocoa or a white powder of confectioners’ sugar. The shopkeeper asked us if we wanted a taste of the panforte – in sign language since we speak no Italian – we indicated the dark cake, and she pressed with all her weight on the knife to make a thin slice for us.
It is always a thrill to taste something new, and the older I get the more exciting – and rare – it becomes. Here was one of those surprising moments. It was a very strong flavor that bit the tongue, along with the tart sweetness of candied citron and the crunch of nuts, and somewhere there was the whiff of cocoa or coffee. This confection was true to its name, strong bread, one with a lot of personality!
We brought several home with us to share, and, wanting more, I searched out a large number of recipes. After baking many, many tests, blending recipes and checking my notes, I arrived at this one which matches as closely as I can remember the surprising taste and texture of Mariuccia’s panforte.
If you would like to see the beautiful sweets in the window for yourself, go to www.pasticceriamariuccia.it where you will see the real thing. Enjoy looking, enjoy baking, enjoy tasting.
1 1/2 cups walnuts
2/3 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup almonds
1/3 cup pine nuts
1/3 cup hazelnuts
1/4 cup candied pineapple
1/4 cup candied citron or orange peel
7 Tbsp flour
4 Tbsp sugar
3 Tbsp cocoa powder, plus more for dusting the cake
1 1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp plus 1/8 tsp fresh-ground black pepper
1/3 cup honey
3 Tbsp sherry
Edible rice paper – available at cake decorating stores, or, from an asian food market, get large round spring roll wrappers made of rice.
Preheat oven to 350˚.
Butter and flour sides and bottoms of three round 5” cake pans. Using the outside of a pan as a guide and with a sharp knife on a cutting board, cut circles of rice paper. Place paper in bottoms of pans.
Toast hazelnuts at 350˚ for a few minutes, then rub them in a tea towel to remove skins as best you can – it is not necessary to remove all skins.
Chop the walnuts, hazelnuts and almonds coarsely and place in large mixing bowl. Chop the candied peel into small pieces and add to bowl. Add the pineapple, pine nuts, chocolate chips and all the dry ingredients, stir to mix. Heat the honey and sherry until hot but not boiling and pour into the nut mixture, stirring with a wooden spoon just until the liquid is incorporated. You should have a very thick, moist mass. Spoon the batter into prepared pans. Press down with a buttered potato masher or your buttered hands until distributed evenly.
Bake for 30-40 minutes until dry looking. These cakes will not rise; the baking is to melt the chocolate chips and bake the honey/sherry into all the rest of the ingredients. Remove from oven, run a knife around the edge of pans and turn cakes out onto wire rack to cool. This must be done immediately after the cakes come out of the oven or they will firm up and become impossible to remove.
When thoroughly cooled, dust tops heavily with cocoa powder. Wrap snugly in wax paper and tape sealed. Then wrap in gift wrap as shown. Panforte was developed long before the invention of refrigerators and was intended to keep for months on the pantry shelf, but we recommend keeping refrigerated, and using within four weeks.