Monday, November 28, 2011

Christmas Panforte & memories of Siena

It was so hot the day we arrived in Siena - one of those blistering Italian August days when only tourists and shopkeepers remain inland and all the Italians flee to Sardinia or some equally exotic coastal location.
To escape the heat, we left the sunny piazza with its pigeons and tourists and apricot tablecloths and headed down a cool, dark cobbled lane, sheltered by tall, thick walls of history. Down the lane and around a corner we discovered a little shop selling Panforte - Siena's traditional cake, heavy with nuts and spices, honey and chocolate. We ate panforte with espresso that day as we wrote postcards home.
Panforte has since become a Christmas staple in our household, but I have been known to make it all year round as it is a wonderful way to end a meal. It is also a great way to showcase our local produce - I use hazelnuts grown up the road in Orange and local honey, prunes and figs. My recipe is - as all the best recipes are - a concoction of a number of recipes. A little from an old Italian baking book, a pinch from  Maggie Beer, and a nod to Mathew Evans.
It is important to get the "stickiness factor" correct when attempting panforte. The mixture will be very heavy and appear to need more liquid - but persevere and get it into your mould or pan as quickly as possible. The "showy" ingredients  - the  fruit, nuts and spices - can be played with according to taste. You may prefer almonds to hazelnuts, more ginger, less white pepper. I never use glace cherries because I despise them - but they have been known to appear in Panforte.

120 g  grated dark couverture chocolate (70% cocoa)
100 g dark cocoa
1 cup honey (I use local Cabonne Country Iron Bark Honey)
250 g caster sugar
350 g hazelnuts ( I use Fourjay Farms hazelnut kernels from Orange)
200 g prunes (I use delicious Budgi Werri Breakfast Prunes made from dried D'Arges plums and grown on the South West Slopes of NSW)
100 g glace ginger (Not so local, but Australian, I use Buderim Ginger)
250g glace figs (I use dried figs from a local organic grower)
200 g mixed peel
250 g plain flour
1 teaspoon-ish each cinnamon, ground cloves, ground nutmeg, allspice and white pepper 
You can purchase the local ingredients mentioned above online at our local Regional Deli, a Canowindra-based business run by our good friends, Chris & Nerida Cuddy.
Preheat oven to 180 C (or 350 F). I usually make between 6 to 8 small panforte out of this mixture, using individual non-stick spring form pans about 11cm in diameter. But you could make one large panforte if you prefer - just be sure to leave it in the oven a little longer. Panforte is traditionally round, but I have seen rectangular versions.
Dissolve the honey and sugar together in a pan over a medium heat. Simmer for about 3 minutes. If you have a thermometer, you are aiming at 112 C for the syrup, or "soft ball" stage.
In another bowl, combine the dry ingredients and then stir in the syrup. Work quickly and use a bit of grunt.
When all is combined, press into your baking tin/s. Dampen your fingers with a little water to press the mixture in if it is too sticky. Cap with little rounds of baking paper to ensure the panforte doesn't burn and place in the oven. If making multiple smaller panforte, only cook for about 10 to15 minutes. One large panforte should cook for about 20 - 25 minutes at the most.
Allow it to cool before turning out. Panforte will keep for weeks. They make great Christmas gifts wrapped  brown paper and string. Below is a quick YouTube video showing the traditional method of wrapping panforte. Not a word is spoken but the crackling of the paper is utterly mesmerising!

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