WELL, we are getting close! For those of us who plan Christmas like a military campaign (years of running a restaurant, with no spare time at Christmas, drilled this into me) these final few days should be an enjoyable winding-down of busy working life; time to put the feet up and watch some telly or dive into that big book you got last Christmas and haven’t had chance to even open
For the majority, however, it will be an inexorable screeching slide down sheet ice into an abyss of half-wrapped presents and forgotten cards.
And then there’s the Great Supermarket Battle; the heaving trolleys loaded with food enough to feed a small village until February smashing into each other in the dairy aisle; the undignified race for the just-opened till, the evil-eyes and parping horns in the icy car park.
As Sartre put it so well, “L’Enfer, c’est Sainsbury’s”. At some point, however, we will all stop and enjoy a few quiet moments with friends and family, and get down to the business of having a great Christmas.
I do hope so, as it’s been quite a year for many.
This week, we’re baking again. I thought of all those Christmassy flavours we love so much – the nuts, dried fruits and warming spices, but wanted to do something a bit different.
After all, it’s too late to make a Christmas pudding, and the mince pies are probably already done.
So my mind wandered across the Channel, and all the way to Italy, the home of this delicious, wintery cake.
This week, we’re making Panforte. The Italians aren’t hugely known for their pastries – what they know about savoury eclipses most national cuisines, surely – but some recipes have made it around the world, and are incredibly popular.
The little crunchy amaretti biscuits in their brightly-coloured tins and sweet little twists of paper, the rich, buttery pannetone, studded with glacé fruit or the simpler, brioche-like pandoro.
Many of us love the crunchy cantuccini or biscotti biscuits, especially dipped into a coffee or glass of sweet wine.
Whereas these cakes and pastries have a delicate taste, Panforte is a real powerhouse of flavour, full of those essential flavours and textures.
It’s widely thought that is was first created in Siena in Tuscany, as a tithe payment to the monks of the local monastery.
The name translates as ‘strong bread’, referring to the spiciness and richness of the mixture. It was popular with travellers and roaming armies as it held together well, and stayed fresh for weeks on end.
It is thought that the traditional Panforte of Siena contained 17 ingredients, one for each district of the city.
Whatever the history, the recipe has lasted through the ages in many differing forms, but the basic mixture, a blend of honey, fruit and nuts, enlivened with warming exotic spices is always the same. Each delicious, chewy bite is a taste of history.
The ingredient that really stands out for me is the fig. I adore figs in all their forms, from the sweet perfume of a fresh fruit in summer (just typing this makes me hanker for a slice of ripe fig with a curl of sweet, tangy Parma ham!) to the unique chewiness of the semi-dried variety.
The crunch of those tiny seeds is exquisite.
And it’s the figs that make up the base of this cake, along with plenty of honey and ground almonds, which provide a bit of stability, texture-wise.
Add into this the bite of fresh, whole nuts and the caress of warming cinnamon and nutmeg, and you’ve got a wonderfully seasonal cake which can be enjoyed on its own, with a coffee, or even with a sliver of blue cheese if you fancy being very non-traditional!
So let’s get to it. And may I just take this opportunity to thank you all for following this column through the year, and wish you all a very Merry Christmas. Festive aprons on!
For the cake:
150g soft dried figs
100g soft dried apricots
100g candied peel
Zest of 1 lemon, grated
100g fresh walnuts
100g whole blanched almonds
100g ground almonds
40g plain flour, plus a little extra
180g English honey (I like to use Sheffield Honey’s blossom type)
200g unrefined light muscovado sugar
¼ tsp ground cloves
¼ tsp freshly-grated nutmeg
1 ½ tsps ground cinnamon
A little butter
An 8-inch cake tin (preferably loose-based), greaseproof paper
Heat the oven to 170°C / Gas 3. Cut a disc of greaseproof paper to fit the base of the tin neatly.
Using the butter, grease the tin all over the inside, and the paper, then place the disc carefully into the tin. Sift the flour into a bowl.
Chop the apricots, figs and walnuts until very small, or better still, pulse in a food processor with the sifted flour until very finely diced. Add the ground almonds.
Melt the honey and sugar together in a saucepan, and add the lemon zest, cinnamon and nutmeg.
Take the pan from the heat and stir in the whole hazelnuts and almonds. Mix this carefully into the flour mixture until you have a stiff doughy consistency. Spoon this into the prepared tin and smooth with a wet palette knife.
Dust the surface with a little extra flour and bake for 30-40 minutes until slightly risen.
Allow the tin to cool completely before unmoulding the panforte and removing the greaseproof paper. It will store, foil-wrapped for a month or so, but it most likely won’t last that long!
Perfect with a glass of Marsala, or just a good cup of black coffee. Merry Christmas!