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Panforte, sometimes written as pan forte, is an Italian confection or torte. It’s a bit difficult to decide whether you should call this Italian dessert cake or candy. It has a rich, dense, chewy nature, much more similar to candy than cake. The name makes matters worse, since in translation it means strong bread, and there is definitely very little about pan forte that resembles bread. Whatever you decide to call it, the dessert definitely inspires the Scottish black bun, a similar confection surrounded by a layer of pastry.
Christmas was once the traditional time to make this dessert, but it is now made and definitely enjoyed year round. Recipes for the dessert date back to the early 1200s, and most food historians believe that panforte originated in Siena. Further proof of this is found in the dessert’s alternate name, Siena Cake or panforte di Siena. One lovely origin story suggests the torte was made even earlier by nuns in the 11th century, and that the spicy aromas of the dish were used to drive away the devil.
Recipes for this round, low, and dense cake can differ slightly. It is primarily a combination of nuts (chiefly almonds, pine nuts, and hazelnuts), raisins, citron, honey, a tiny amount of flour, sometimes eggs, and a generous amount of sweet spices. Panforte can also include black pepper, though this is not always the case. Cakes are almost always round, though if you buy it in a local deli or in bakeries, you can often purchase it in individual slices. It’s also traditional to allow panforte to rest for several days before it is consumed to intensify and blend its flavors.
Biting into a slice of panforte reveals a fascinating and complex texture and taste. Some find the flavor comparable to mincemeat, though the dessert doesn’t typically contain alcohol. It is thick, and chewy, with plenty of crunchy nuts, and is extremely dense. Some are reminded of fruitcake when they try this confection, though there is no leavening and very little flour in the recipe. You could almost call it fruitcake distilled, since it is not a moist dessert.
The simplest panfortes are merely given a sprinkling of powdered sugar on top and are served fully cool, usually, as mentioned, a few days after they have been baked. Many rave about the complexity in flavor of chocolate versions, which add even more richness and texture. You’ll often find simpler version at gourmet food stores, or at Italian delis in the US, but it’s a little harder to find the chocolate variant.
Chocolate lovers shouldn’t despair because there are a number of recipes online, and you can usually order the chocolate type from food importers on the Internet. Though the dessert is frequently imported from Italy, there are a few companies in the US and elsewhere that make their own versions. Lovers of this Italian confection may suggest though, that if you want true panforte, you must purchase authentic versions made in Siena.