Thursday, December 10, 2009

A spicy side of Christmas

Heady spice mixtures and plump dried fruit feature heavily in Christmas baking. Many of the traditional dishes we've inherited from England, such as Christmas cakes, fruit mince tarts and plum puddings, are chock-full of these ingredients. But other nations have similar traditions: the spicy Dutch speculaas biscuits and golden fruit-studded panettone or panforte, a spicy mix of glace fruit and nuts, from Italy, for example.

For many years I've made a chocolate panforte at Christmas. No matter how full we are, everyone always finds a small hole in their stomach when the plate of panforte, dusted with icing sugar, comes out with coffee. In last year's Christmas issue of Gourmet Traveller, I found a recipe for panpepato, which is very similar to panforte. With a newborn in the house last Christmas, there was no time to make the panpepato but it was one of the first things on my list for this year (as this recipe came from the December 2008 issue, it doesn't strictly fit into the We Made This challenge that Suzie from Munch+Nibble and I are doing, but I'm including it anyway, as I haven't had a chance to cook as much from this year's edition as I'd hoped!)

According to Gourmet Traveller, panpepato is a Christmas specialty from the Siena region of Italy. It is similar to panforte but is spiced up with black pepper and cocoa or chocolate. "The hsitory of panforte and panpepato are intertwined and it's difficult to distinguish which came first and what their true provenance is," Emma Knowles wrote in her article on panpepato. "Legend has it that panpepato possessed powerful aphrodisiac qualities and also had the ability to stop husbands and wives from fighting, both of which are great reasons to whip up a batch yourself."

Panpepato is easy to make, although you will need a sugar thermometer and some confidence in cooking a soft caramel. The mixing stage needs to be done very quickly or you end up with a big, gluggy, unusable mess on your hands.

The recipe specifies that the panpepato should be baked in five 10cm-diameter springform pans. I made mine in a 20cm springform pan, as I don't have the smaller pans, and adjusted the cooking time slightly. The end result was fine but I do think the smaller versions would work very well if you wanted to give these away as gifts. Panpepato would make a wonderful gift for your friends: this is a wonderful cake, like a sexy older sister version of panforte. The dark cocoa gives it a luxurious element, while the spicy aftertaste of peppercorns lingers teasingly on the palate. This is a dish that I will definitely be making again.


Recipe from Gourmet Traveller, December 2008 (available on the GT website)

2 sheets of confectioner's rice paper
50gm plain flour
40gm Dutch-process cocoa
1 Tb ground mixed spice
1 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 tsp coarsely crushed pink peppercorns
200gm candied orange, coarsely chopped
80gm almonds, roasted
80gm each walnuts and hazelnuts, roasted and peeled
150gm caster sugar
150g honey
Pure icing sugar, to dust

Preheat oven to 150 degrees. Lightly grease five 10-cm diameter springform pans, line bases with baking paper and then rice paper, trimming to fit. Sift flour and cocoa into a bowl, add spices, orange and nuts and toss to coat well in the flour mixture.

Heat caster sugar, honey and 2 Tb water in saucepan over medium heat, stirring until sugar dissolves. Do not stir again, as mixture may crystallise. Bring to the boil and cook until mixture reaches 120 degrees on a sugar thermometer (soft ball stage). Working quickly with a lightly oiled spoon, pour caramel over nut mixture, mixing well. Spoon into prepared pans and smooth tops with an oiled spatula. Bake for 10-15 minutes (time it carefully because this cake will not firm up or colour as it cooks). Cool completely in pans, turn out, then dust liberally with icing sugar. Serve cut into wedges (note that this cake is rich and a little will go a long way).

Panpepato will keep, wrapped in baking paper, and then plastic wrap in an airtight container in a cool place, for up to one month. To present as a gift, wrap panpepato in baking paper before wrapping as desire.


Suzie said...

I love both panpetato and panforte - yours looks phenomenal. I think that I will aim to make some next Christmas as little gifts (mind you, Christmas is paved with good intentions isn't it?). Incidentally DJs have the little springforms discounted at the moment.

Melinda said...

Both panpepato and panforte make great gifts, as long as you have the time to make them! Thanks for the tip about the springforms at DJs - will definitely snap some up.