news from up the creek
TASTE OF TRADITION
Panforte is a sweet way to warm up this winter.
WRITTEN BY MIKE MADISON
ILLUSTRATION BY LUCY ENGELMAN
November is a wonderful month to travel in Italy. The hordes of summer tourists have gone away, and the midwinter visitors from points north have not yet arrived, so life is uncrowded and unhurried. You can linger over your dinner as long as you like without suffering gestures of impatience from a party waiting for your table. Olive harvest is underway in November, which lends a festive aspect to the season. It also is the time for harvesting truffles. You enter a modest little taverna on a side street and order a plate of pasta, and the owner will come to your table with a grater and a handful of fresh truffles to liven up your dinner. Splendid! And if the weather is rather melancholy, well, that’s appropriate to the times.
November also is the season for making panforte, an extraordinarily dense fruit-and-nut cake, usually in the shape of a disk that’s six or eight inches in diameter and an inch or so tall. Most famously in Siena, but elsewhere as well, the shop windows are piled high with stacks of panforte wrapped in white paper. Like springerle in Germany and rum-soaked fruitcakes in North America, panforte often is given as a seasonal gift that can last for months, or even years, without refrigeration, so there’s no reason not to prepare it well in advance.
We make panforte each year in December. This usually is a raucous affair involving three generations of the family, everyone having a job to do. There are hundreds of recipes for panforte, and we never make it quite the same way twice, but there are certain invariants. We start with a heap of dried fruit from our farm (figs, damsons, apricots, raisins, and possibly candied bergamot peel) cut into small pieces. This is combined with roasted hazelnuts (from Oregon or Turkey) and almonds, as well as some flour and bitter cocoa powder. Spices are essential — cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and plenty of black pepper. The dry ingredients are mixed together in a large stainless steel bowl.
The only liquid, and it’s barely a liquid, is honey. You heat it up on the stove to a temperature of about 240 degrees F. The recipes usually tell you, quite innocently, to combine the hot honey with the dry ingredients and mix well. Ha! As soon as the honey hits the dry ingredients, it cools and becomes so stiff that it takes all the strength of a strong man, or even two strong men, to stir it. The first time I attempted this, I broke a stainless steel whisk into two pieces. Now we arm the stirrers with strong spoons, and the stirring is fast and furious. Once you add the honey, you have less than two minutes to get the ingredients mixed and packed into springform pans, ready for the oven.
You eat panforte likes this: In the morning, cut a narrow wedge to have with your coffee. Delicious! At midday, take another narrow wedge, to boost your energy. And in the evening, after dinner, have a wedge (or two, or three) together with a glass of brandy (or two, or three). Brandy and panforte are excellent companions, and they make the long winter evenings quite tolerable.
Mike Madison operates a family farm near Winters, Calif., producing olives (Yolo Press Olive Oil), figs, apricots, melons, and cut flowers. His books about Sacramento Valley agriculture include Walking the Flatlands and Blithe Tomato.