Chestnut panforte, a gluten free and vegan treat

This is a slightly untraditional variation on the most traditional recipe I know for panforte — a sweet, dense, spicy medieval cake from Siena. The recipe comes from the bible of Tuscan cooking, Paolo Petroni’s Il Grande Libro della Vera Cucina Toscana and every time I make panforte (since I first posted about it back in 2011) I make some kind of variation on his recipe. To be honest, I usually don’t deviate from it much unless there’s something I can’t find — even in Tuscany, that candied melon he calls for can be hard to procure! Often I might simply play around with proportions of spices, more black pepper, a little less cinnamon. Or, if I have it, I go with the spice mix Tuscan’s call, droghe, drugs, which are bought by the weight in little neighbourhood alimentari, wrapped in paper.

But this time I wanted to try something quite different, and I used chestnut flour, which you can find in Tuscany from about October to March in place of regular flour. It makes such a delicious seasonal version, and although it’s not a traditional part of panforte’s long history, the flavour of chestnuts is so Tuscan that it feels like it’s meant to be in here.

Panforte generally has only a few variations. There’s panpepato, which is a very spicy version, with it’s top covered in a layer of black pepper (pepato means peppered) in place of the icing sugar — it tastes positively medieval and is just the thing to warm you on a wintery day with an espresso. On the other side of the scale, there is a very delicate version known as Panforte Margherita. Invented in 1879 in honour of Queen Margherita of Savoy’s visit to Siena, it’s made using candied citron instead of the melon and vanilla instead of the characteristically heady spices. The citron makes it ‘blonder’ than the classic, dark panforte.

Down the bottom of Tuscany in Monte Argentario and Giglio Island is what I would call the long lost cousin of panforte, panficato – made similarly but with dried figs in place of the candied fruit. I have that recipe in Acquacotta and it is something like a figgy brownie, with only flour holding the fruit, chocolate and spices together, shaped into a rustic loaf.

The main ingredient in panforte is candied fruit— so it should be something you are already particularly fond of and, if you can, I strongly recommend using a good one, either homemade or artisan-made rather than industrial, pre-chopped bits. It’s not a cheap option but it makes a world of difference and I would go as far as to say it’s probably not worth making if you can’t get the good stuff.

Not having candied melon in lockdown, I use candied citron like the panforte Margherita (or try dried figs like the panficato of the coast). Use whatever nuts you like best — almonds are traditional but since this is an untraditional panforte, I think hazelnuts or walnuts would go particularly well with the chestnut flavours.

This makes such a lovely treat for Christmas. Like many fruit dense Christmas cakes (the little ones in the photo below are Belinda Jeffrey’s Christmas cake), panforte lasts weeks and weeks and you only need tiny portions at a time because it is so sweet and dense. It makes a nice gift too, if you make one big one like this, cut into slices and wrap in greaseproof paper before wrapping in pretty paper (you can also make this in small tins, just note that the panforte should be about 2cm tall). Oh and did I mention, it’s gluten free and vegan too?

Chestnut Panforte

I recommend having all the ingredients ready before you add the syrup as once this gets added it can harden to a point where it becomes difficult to handle (especially if your kitchen is quite cold). If this happens, you simply need to warm the mixture gently and then it becomes easier to pat into the cake tin. If you can, use whole spices and grind them just before using in a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder for maximum flavour. You may be timid about using pepper, but I can’t stress how important the flavour of the black pepper is in here, go for one whole teaspoon of it!

Serves 12

350 grams candied citron
50 grams candied orange peel
200 grams whole peeled almonds, walnuts or hazelnuts
4 teaspoons ground spices (coriander seeds, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, black pepper)
150 grams chestnut flour, sifted
300 grams white sugar
Icing sugar for dusting

Grease and line a 24-26 cm cake tin with baking paper and heat the oven to 160C (320F)

Chop the candied fruit into very small diced pieces and place in a large bowl. Add the nuts, the spices and the sifted chestnut flour (it tends to be lumpy, don’t skip the sifting) and set aside.

Place the sugar in 100 ml of water in a saucepan over low heat. Let it dissolve and thicken very slightly into a syrup, about 5 minutes of gentle simmering should do it, do not let it colour into a caramel (it should reach 120C, if you have a sugar thermometer).

Take the syrup off the heat and mix immediately with the candied fruit mixture until just combined (Note: if you are having trouble here mixing together, what could be happening is the syrup is hardening when it hits the cold ingredients — one way to avoid this is if you’re working in a cold kitchen is to warm the ingredients ever so slightly in a low oven or microwave, just enough so they’re tepid rather than cold. If it’s too late and the mixture is hardening, you can always warm it back together by putting the bowl over a pan of simmering water, aka a gentle bain marie).

Tip the mixture immediately into the cake tin and flatten/smooth out with a nonstick spatula (or dust the top with some extra cinnamon and then use your hands to pat it out). Bake for 40 minutes or until golden brown and the top is firm to the touch. Allow to cool completely in the tin. Before serving, cover generously with icing sugar.

It keeps very well stored in a cool, dark place.

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