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Panforte takes the cake

January 28, 2011

[I’m always happy to write for the Town Crier’s wedding section, because it’s a chance to think about fancy desserts. This piece was inspired by my holiday baking.]

After the reception, with its magnificent, multi-tiered cake, wedding favors can seem like an afterthought. But in choosing the favor, you’re choosing how your wedding will be remembered. What do you want to send home with your guests? One thing comes to mind—something unusual and sophisticated.

Not surprisingly, the tradition of wedding favors has an aristocratic pedigree. In Medieval Europe, aristocrats were the ones with the means—and the inclination to show it off. Particularly in the aristocratic households of France and Italy, the tradition of bonbonnieres emerged: guests were given small boxes made of glass, crystal, or porcelain, which their hosts had filled with costly sugar confections as an expression and reminder of their status. We can see the same penchant for French finery in the recent wedding-favor trend of Parisian macarons, carried away in individual boxes.

Within the world of wedding favors, Italian panforte stands out. Redolent of orange zest, pressed and baked into a thin disk and then dusted with powdered sugar and cut into mosaic wedges, the chewy fruit-and-nut cake is superb. It is the essence of subtle refinement.

As a statement, panforte isn’t just classy; it’s also a shade exotic. Though its roots are deep in medieval Tuscany, it echoes other confection traditions (other, that is, than the fabulous frilly paradigm we inherit from the French).

Its closest relatives are in the nougat family. Italian torrone, and Spanish turròn combine almonds (and often pistachios) with beaten egg whites and honey. The gaz (nougat) of Iran adds a distinctive touch of rosewater. An even more common wedding favor in the Middle East is a parcel of five almonds, representing fertility, longevity, wealth, health and happiness, respectively. This ancient tradition was the precursor to the colorful, candy-coated Jordan almonds we find at weddings and christenings.

Its closest relatives are in the nougat family. Italian torrone, and Spanish turròn combine almonds (and often pistachios) with beaten egg whites and honey. The gaz (nougat) of Iran adds a distinctive touch of rosewater. An even more common wedding favor in the Middle East is a parcel of five almonds, representing fertility, longevity, wealth, health and happiness, respectively. This ancient tradition was the precursor to the colorful, candy-coated Jordan almonds we find at weddings and christenings.

Closer to home, panforte also resembles a familiar British wedding favor: the fruitcake. The idea behind giving fruitcake as a favor was that it would last long enough to be eaten one year later, on the first wedding anniversary. But fruitcake feels stodgy now, something your aunt so-and-so might foist on you during the holidays. Panforte’s density of nuts and dried fruit may resemble fruitcake, but it is not cakey—and certainly not stodgy.

Making panforte is easier than it was in the Middle Ages, when the fruit had to be pitted and dried, and the sugar chiseled from dense—and costly—loaves. Even easier is ordering it from Italy. One local importer is Cowgirl Creamery, at the San Francisco Ferry Terminal.

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Panforte

1 cup flour

1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder

1 teaspoon cinnamon

¼ teaspoon grated nutmeg

2 ½ cups whole toasted almonds

¼ cup whole toasted hazelnuts

2 ½ cups mixed dried fruit (figs, raisins, golden raisins, apricots, cherries) cut in 1/2-inch pieces

1 teaspoon grated orange zest

¾ cup sugar

2/3 cup honey

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Grease the bottom and sides of a 9-inch springform pan; line the bottom with a piece of parchment paper and grease the paper.

In a large bowl, whisk together flour, cocoa powder, cinnamon and nutmeg. Add the nuts, fruit and orange peel. Set aside.

Combine sugar and honey in a small saucepan over low heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and cook for a few minutes, until the mixture reaches the soft-ball stage (240 degrees on a candy thermometer). Add the syrup to the flour-nut mixture and stir until all the ingredients are well coated and begin to form a sticky ball. Mixing with wet hands is helpful. Press the ball firmly into the prepared pan and bake for 1 hour, or until the surface has lost its sheen. Cool completely, preferably overnight.

To serve, remove from the pan, dust with confectioners’ sugar, and cut into thin slices.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. marilyn bourbon permalink
    February 3, 2011 10:54 am

    I LOVE PANFORTE, ESPECIALLY THIS RECIPE. READING ABOUT THE WEDDING TRADITIONS IS FUN. THANKS FOR YOUR RESEARCH AND THANKS FOR THIS PANFORTE.

    • February 5, 2011 8:53 am

      Hopefully we’ll find a chance to make it again before next Christmas!

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