This weekend, my entire house was filled with the cloying smell of freshly baked treats. Christmas is coming, and I, the human incarnation of a squirrel am spending all of my waking hours hoarding as many Christmas desserts as I can make.

Okay, that sounded a little creepy.

What I meant to say was that I spent a good 12 hours this weekend making a gingerbread house. It was first for me. I was lured into making one by a very elegant looking video I saw on the Gourmet Traveller website.

It’s suffice to say mine didn’t look anything like the picture. In fact, mine had such severe structural problems that my hubby had to make paper splints to keep it up. My gingerbread house will not be passing the building inspection. Enough said.

But in the two weeks before Christmas I always try to celebrate both our family’s traditions. The first week is always dedicated to English treats, like the dreaded, never again, not even if you pay me, gingerbread house.

While the second week is always a celebration of Italian festive traditions – in our house, that means panforte!

Panforte is actually a Sienese invention dating back to the 13th century. Plenty of Sienese would scoff at my recipe because good panforte is a closely guarded secret. All the bakeries in Siena have their own recipe, which they insist is the most authentic and delicious.

Panforte was in ye old times made as a way to pay due to the priests and nuns of your local monastery. Panforte means ‘strong bread’, which refers to the strong spices used in the cake.

Enthusiasts and panforte afficionados insist it’s not a real panforte if it doesn’t have 17 different ingredients, one for each district in Siena.

To them I say fooey! My recipe is actually quite authentic, much simpler and just as delicious as the city’s recipes. It belongs to my mother-in-law’s family and has been made the same way for generations.

Panforte is the typical Tuscan Maremman gift to give to friends and family on Christmas. The tradition dates back to the 15th century, when the region was part of the Republic of Siena.

The original panforte recipes cooked here would have come from the Sienese themselves, and while we most likely changed a few things over the centuries, I can assure you that the Tuscan Maremman panforte is just as good (if not better) than its Sienese neighbour’s!

Luckily, it’s also extremely easy to make. Unlike panatone, there’s no need to mess about with yeast or kneading. Panforte is really just a delicious Italian version of Christmas cake with a divine dusting of icing sugar on top!

Panforte Recipe

  • 75g plain flour
  • 1 tsp ground cardamom and cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp black pepper
  • 200g dried figs, coarsely chopped
  • 1 cup glace cherries, coarsely chopped
  • 140g roasted pecans, coarsely chopped
  • 75g roasted macadamias, coarsely chopped
  • 160g whole blanched almonds
  • 80g unsalted butter
  • 110g caster sugar
  • 180g honey
  • icing sugar, for dusting

  • Preheat the oven to 180°C. Grease and flour a 20cm round baking tin.

    Combine the almonds, macadamias, pistachios, figs, cherries, flour, nutmeg, pepper, ground cinnamon and cloves in a large bowl. Set aside.

    Place the butter, sugar and honey into a small saucepan over a low heat. Warm gently, stirring until the sugar has dissolved, then stop stirring and bring the mixture just to the boil.

    Immediately tip the hot syrup into the fruit and nut mixture. Quickly mix them together until they’re well combined before the sugar sets. Light and quick fingers are needed here!

    Scrape the mixture into the prepared tin, press down and flatten so the top is even.

    Bake in a preheated oven for 30 minutes. Don’t worry if it looks a little soft. It will harden when it cools. Once cool, turn out and dust with icing sugar.

    Serve with coffee or a sweet dessert wine. Buon Appetito!

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