It seems we have a predilection for dried fruit and spices at this time of year. We’ve inherited a love of all things fruity from the English, whether it be Christmas cakes, fruit mince tarts or plum puddings. The Italians like to get in on the act too, turning out golden fruit-studded panettone and Siena’s rich, dark panforte, a toothsome jumble of dried and glacé fruit, nuts and spices bound with honey and a touch of flour. Similarly, panpepato is a specialty of both the region and the season, differing by the addition of chocolate and a generous quantity of ground black pepper. Both confections date back to the Middle Ages and today the artisanal producers jealously guard the recipes. The history of panforte and panpepato are intertwined and it’s difficult to distinguish which came first and what their true provenance is. Some claim panpepato was invented first and then the flavours were changed and refined in honour of Queen Margherita of Savoy’s visit to the town in 1879. Thus panforte Margherita was born. Other sources state that panpepato derives from panforte and was created by Sister Berta when Siena was under siege. She had become so concerned for the health of the residents that she set about making a cake based on the original panforte recipe. Instead of fresh fruit, she packed the cake with dried fruit, honey and nuts and spiked it with spicy pepper. Our version uses black and pink peppercorns and we’ve given it a distinct citrus flavour with the addition of candied orange. Legend has it 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. And then there’s the chewy texture and spicy flavour to consider. Get cooking.
This Italian delicacy, a heady mixture of rich, dark cocoa and plenty of black pepper, will put some pep in your step.
- 2 sheets of confectioner’s rice paper (see note)
- 50 gm (1/3 cup) plain flour
- 40 gm Dutch-process cocoa
- 1 tbsp ground mixed spice
- 1 tsp ground coriander
- ½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tsp coarsely crushed pink peppercorns
- 200 gm candied oranges, coarsely chopped
- 80 gm (¾ cup) almonds, roasted
- 80 gm each walnuts and hazelnuts, roasted and peeled (see note)
- 150 gm caster sugar
- 150 gm honey
- To dust: pure icing sugar
- 1Preheat oven to 150C. Lightly grease five 10cm-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 flour mixture.
- 2Heat caster sugar, honey and 2 tbsp 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 120C 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. Panpepato will keep, wrapped in baking paper and then plastic wrap in an airtight container in a cool place, for up to 1 month. To present as a gift, wrap panpepato in baking paper before wrapping as desired. Serve cut into wedges.
This recipe makes 5 cakes. Confectioner’s rice paper is available from
and other speciality food stores. To remove nut skins, roast nuts at 180C (8-10 minutes) until golden. Cool, then rub off skins between two ends of a folded tea towel.