Originally from Siena the strongest (and least bready) sweet in the sweet Italian canon is the wonderful Panforte. Reinforced with a hefty weight of roasted nuts and candied fruit; denser and chewier than a fruitcake, more like nougat’s spicier, festive sister, it is one of those things that I never thought of making, as it was so easily bought (even in England) and wrapped in such pretty packaging, too.
However, and this is a fairly big however, the ones you buy in shops are built to last. And by the time you buy them they may well have already lasted on shelves for a good few months – years, perhaps. They tend to be rock solid and a little cardboard-y in flavour. The joy of making your own Panforte is that you get to control the texture, which should be marvellously giving and chewy, you can choose what you like to put inside it, and you can enjoy its Medieval spicy, citrus scented flavour in all its fresh and festive glory.
This recipe makes one big (9inch) panforte, but if you make two small ones they are wonderful to give as gifts (as is the big one too, but perhaps for whole families rather than individuals). You can also create your own festive packaging for it.
I like a fairly classic panforte, because I love to taste the almonds, candied peel, honey and spices all distinctly, but you can add anything you like really (within reason!); chocolate, pistachios, cherries, walnuts etc.
Makes 1 x 9 inch cake, serves 8-10
200g almonds (half blanched, half skin-on is nice)
100g candied peel
Zest of 1 lemon
Zest of 1 orange
100g 00 flour
A pinch of salt
1 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp ground nutmeg
¼ tsp ground cloves
¼ tsp ground pepper (white is traditional, but black is fine)
Grease and line a 9 inch cake tin with baking paper. Butter the paper too, as this is an exceptionally sticky cake.
Preheat the oven to 170. Place all the nuts on a roasting tray and roast for 10 minutes, until golden. Roughly chop them (very roughly, they can be almost whole, and lots can remain whole).
Chop the candied peel into small pieces (no larger than hazelnut size) and measure all of the remaining ingredients into a bowl. Add the chopped nuts and the peel.
Place the honey, sugar, butter and salt in a saucepan and bring to a simmer. Stir until the sugar has melted and allow the syrup to just come to a rolling boil.
Pour the syrup into the bowl with the other ingredients and stir well to combine. Pour the batter into the prepared baking tin and place in the oven. Cook for 20-25 minutes, until just golden, then allow to cool completely before dusting with icing sugar and serving in strong slices with a strong coffee, or wrapping in lots of wax paper and tying with a ribbon to give as a gift.
This keeps well for a week or so.
Cappuccino Panna Cotta with Espresso Caramel
In the late 15th century, Queen Isabella of Spain bragged that she had only bathed twice in her entire life. Based on this, my grandmother used to refer to anything beige or pale brown as ‘Isabella-coloured’, as homage to the grubby Queen.
Coffee is a natural flavour for a panna cotta, as it pairs so well with cream, and the bitter espresso caramel which is drizzled over the top is a deliciously sweet, bitter and smokey addition (and very easy to make).
Makes 4 larger, 6 smaller darioles
50g demerara sugar
2 leaves of gelatine – 4g
Warm the espresso in a small sauce pan with the milk and sugar, bringing just to a simmer to dissolve the sugar.
Slake the gelatine in cold water for a couple of minutes until completely soft.
Dissolve the gelatine in the still-hot coffee mixture, whisking well to dissolve it.
Add the cream and whisk well. Decant into darioles (or espresso cups for extra kitsch-ness) and leave for at least 4 hours to set.
For the Caramel (you can make this well in advance and store it for a few days).
Pinch of salt
In a small saucepan bring the sugar and water to the boil, swirling occasionally to help the sugar dissolve (don’t stir, just swirl, otherwise crystals may form). Bring to a boil and cook over a high heat, keeping an eye on it and swirling occasionally until the syrup has turned to a caramel colour, and begun to smell of caramel. Turn the heat down to low, pour in the coffee and whisk well (it will bubble up lots at this point). Whisk gently until the syrup is completely smooth. Leave to cool, then use as required. You only need a small drizzle over each panna cotta, but it is also good with vanilla ice cream.
This panna cotta is especially good with some extra double cream, and then the coffee syrup over the top, for gentle overkill.
Quince, Bay, Marsala & Hazelnut Trifle
All things must end and so if they must, then let it be with trifle. Trifle is one of the most pleasurable of all puddings; layers of soft creaminess sinking finally into the gentle mattress-bounce of dampened cake, the irresistible coupling of cream and custard and the light lilt of booze in the background, this is a pudding to rival Tiramisu (and for some, to surpass it too).
This trifle is a celebration of late autumn coming into winter, and the Mela Cotogna which are happily as at home in Italy as they are in England. A quince, or ‘cotton apple’ as they are known in Italy, is a magical fruit – soft, downy as an owlet, covered with a fine matte fluff which disintegrates at a touch, its perfume half apple and half Arabian nights. It has a flavour both wonderfully crisp and lemony, like the best autumnal apples, and simultaneously as dusky and exotic as a damask rose-filled boudoir.
Cooked long and slow as in this recipe, the colours of the quince change miraculously from pale gold to garnet and the fruit becomes intensely floral and fudgy. The combination with the cream, custard and cake topped with the toasted crunch of the nuts and the smoky, marsala-soaked sponge is a hard one to beat. It takes a little time to make, but it is worth it. It is no trifling matter.
Makes 1 large trifle, feeds 10 modest trifle-eaters, 8 trifle fiends
For the sponge layer:
150ml Marsala (or sherry)
1 x pack of trifle sponges/or 1 whole pandoro (or leftover home-made sponge if you have it)
For the quinces:
3 large quinces (around 650g)
Few strips of Lemon peel
2 Bay leaves
For the custard:
600ml double cream
100ml whole milk
6 egg yolks
1 vanilla pod, split
40g Hazelnuts, lightly toasted
350ml double Cream
2 tbsp icing sugar
Dark chocolate, grated (optional)
First make the custard. Bring the milk, cream and vanilla pod to a scald in a deep saucepan. In a large mixing bowl, whisk the yolks with the sugar. Once at a scald, pour the milk mix into the yolk mixture in a steady stream, whisking all the time. Return the mixture to the pan and place over a medium heat. Stir constantly, cooking the custard until it is thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon. Once thick, strain through a sieve into a container and cover the surface with clingfilm. Allow to cool completely. Leave in the fridge until ready to use.
Cook the quinces: peel and core them, cutting them into quarters and then 8ths. (Reserve the peel to add a handful of strips to them as they poach, which will enhance their ruby colour. You can remove it at the end). Place the water, sugar, lemon zest and bay leaves in a deep pan and add the quinces (and bits of peel). Bring to a simmer and cover with a cartouche and a lid. Poach over a low heat, checking occasionally, for up to 2 hours or more, until they have turned a deep ruby red.
Set aside and leave to cool.
Whip the cream with the icing sugar to soft peaks, toast the hazelnuts (see p. ) and leave aside to cool. Chop them roughly.
Now assemble the trifle:
Cut the sponge into thick lengths or fingers (large enough to be interesting, small enough to allow space in the bowl for plentiful custard) and place in the centre of your trifle bowl/dish. Sprinkle over the marsala or sherry, and some of the quince juice too, if you like, but don’t soak the sponge too much, it’s nicer with some cakey body left in it rather than sadly sodden.
Lay over the quinces, then the custard, and finally the cream. Top with the roasted hazelnuts, and a grating of dark chocolate, if you wish.
Serve, with aplomb.
Note: if you can’t find quinces, then use pears instead, and cut down the poaching time to about 40 minutes, with half the quantity of water.
If you make extra quinces, or don’t use them all, they are delicious with yoghurt or ricotta. In fact it is worth cooking these quinces just to have them for other things, even if you don’t make the trifle.
You can also use a bought Pandoro instead of homemade sponge which makes the whole assembly that much more decadent and perfectly appropriate for Christmas.
These recipes are by Letitia Clark. For more gorgeous Italian-inspired sweets, we recommend her book La Vita è Dolce. A lovely present for bakers – experienced or otherwise.