The festive season brings with it the flavours and aromas of Christmases past, as the nostalgic perfumes of mixed spice, cloves and cinnamon fill the air. The traditional cakes of the various regions are all beautifully wrapped making delightful displays in shop windows where their delicious flavours capture the essence of Natale and ideal luxury food gifts from your trip to Italy during the holiday season.
One of the most famous cakes of the Tuscan region is the historic Senese panforte. A traditional Italian dessert containing fruits and nuts, not too dissimilar to a traditional fruitcake or lebkuchen. It is thought to date back to the thirteenth century with documents dating from 1205 showing that panforte was paid to the monks and nuns of a local monastery as a tax or tithe which was due on the seventh of February that year.
Literally speaking, panforte means “strong bread” which refers to the spicy flavour. The original name of panforte was panpepato (peppered bread), due to the strong pepper used in the cake. There are many references in the history books claiming that fighters in the Crusades carried panforte, a durable and long-lasting sweet confection, with them on their quests. It is claimed that it was the richness of the cake that sustained and fortified the crusaders, enabling them to survive brutal and lengthy sieges.
The process of making panforte is fairly simple. Sugar is dissolved in honey and added to various nuts, fruits and spices mixed together with flour. The entire mixture is baked in a shallow pan, and the finished cake is dusted with icing sugar.
Nowadays, there are many shops in Italy producing panforte, each recipe their jealously guarded interpretation of the original confection, and each packaged in distinctive and highly decorated wrapping. Traditionally, a small wedge is served with coffee or a dessert wine after a meal.
The panforte capital of course is Siena where you will see numerous vibrant displays of this Italian classic cake. It is sometimes said that an authentic panforte should contain seventeen different ingredients to represent the number of contrade (neighbourhoods) within the city walls.
Of course, panforte is only one example of traditional Italian confectionary with panettone also being viewed as a national delicacy linked to winter festivities.
Panettone is a type of sweet bread originally from Milan. It is usually prepared and enjoyed over Christmas and New Year in Italy, but also features in many other European countries. It is one of the significant symbols of the city of Milan.
In recent years, it has become a popular addition to the Christmas table around the globe. Panettone has a cupola shape, which extends from a cylindrical base and is usually about 12–15 cm high making it an impressive dessert. Other forms and shapes may be used, such as an octagon or a frustum with a star section shape more common to pandoro. This Italian classic requires a long production process that involves the curing of the dough, which is acidic, similar to sourdough. The proofing process alone takes several days, giving the cake its distinctive fluffy characteristic. It often contains candied orange, citron and lemon zest, as well as raisins, which are added dry and not soaked. Of course, more commercial variations include chocolate and coffee.
It is traditionally served in slices, vertically cut and accompanied with sweet wine, such as Asti or Moscato d’Asti. In some regions of Italy, it is served with crema di mascarpone, a cream made from mascarpone, eggs, dried or candied fruits and typically a sweet liqueur such as amaretto.
One thing is certain, the abundant displays of beautifully wrapped traditional cakes, gloriously packaged in their colourful finery, evoke a sense of nostalgia and festive pride in every Italian, young and old.