Christmas in Italy is still essentially a religious holiday where the birth of baby Jesus is the inspiration for lovingly crafted nativity scenes that can be found in many churches, squares, schools and private households. But it is also an opportunity for families to come together, to cook, to share a meal and pass on traditions from one generation to the next, strengthening the ties between young and old. In this context eating carries much greater significance than simply preparing and serving food.
A major highlight of the Christmas holiday in Italy is Cenone (big dinner), which takes place on Christmas Eve. While the menu tends to vary from region to region, traditionally pasta always makes an appearance, followed by fish and seafood, with plenty of vegetable dishes. Equally important is the Christmas Day lunch where we have meat, vegetables, and why not, pasta again!
Desserts, sweets and pastries also play a big part on these special days, providing some much-needed sweetness, lightness, or crunchiness. Few Italians can resist these mouth-watering treats! Among the sweetest and most delicious of these is Panforte (strong bread). A speciality of Siena, Panforte is a thick and dense cake of medieval origin. Records from the 13th Century mention Panforte being produced in the Sienese countryside in the form of an enriched bread with honey and spices. Traditionally the recipe includes peppercorn, which is not often found in cakes, and is mainly enjoyed during the Christmas period.
- 150 gr almonds
- 150 gr hazelnut
- 100 gr of walnut
- 60 gr plain flour
- 150 gr caster sugar
- 150 gr honey
- ½ tsp ground nutmeg
- ½ tsp mixed spices
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- ½ ground rainbow peppercorn
- 200 gr Italian mixed peel
- 100 gr dried apricots
- 1 sheet of edible paper
- Icing sugar
Icing sugar, cinnamon, plain flour
- Line a 18 cm round cake tin with the edible paper and set it aside.
- in a saucepan put the honey and sugar and let them melt over a low heat without ever bringing them to boil. In the meantime, put the almonds, hazelnuts and walnuts on a tray and toast them in the oven at 100 C° for 10/12 minutes (should toast slightly, should not become dark).
- Add the toasted mixed nuts to a large bowl with the flour, the finely chopped candied peel, ap and spices. Stir to mix.
- Once the sugar and honey become a thick golden syrup, remove the saucepan from the heat.
- Pour the syrup into the bowl with all the other ingredients and stir with a spoon to mix everything: it will be a very hard dough.
- Scoop the dough into the lined cake tin and smooth the surface with wet hands. Dust the surface with the mix of flour, icing sugar and cinnamon.
- Place in the oven at 150/160 C° for 15/20 min.
- Remove the Panforte from the oven, let it cool slightly and then remove it from the baking tin.
- Once the Panforte is cold, dust generously with icing sugar
Lucia Ortisi is Slow Food Edinburgh Secretary.