It’s the sixth post in this year’s Twelve Bakes of Christmas, and the kitchen is still standing! I know I’ve still got six more recipes to go, but where would the fun be if I wasn’t surrounded by sugar, spice and all things nice at this time of year? Well, that plus a whole lot of mess, a sugar thermometer and more than a few burns due to my tendency to use tea towels rather than proper oven gloves…
Today’s recipe is a delicious Italian sweet treat called panpepato, which means “peppered bread”. It is associated with the Province of Ferrera on the Adriatic coast. It has more than a passing resemblance to panforte, but panpepato is dark in colour, flavoured with cocoa, chocolate and pepper, and sometimes even coated in yet more chocolate.
This is a cake with a long history, with some sources suggesting it can be traced back to the 11th century. Panforte and panpepato would originally have been consumed by the aristocracy – with sweet candied fruit and spices, these were firmly luxury confectionery. And as with many traditional recipes, there are various origin myths about which came first.
Some suggest it started with panforte, and panpepato was later created during a siege with candied fruit to address the lack of fresh fruit or less choice in terms of ingredients for the panforte. Others suggest panpepato is where it was at originally, and panforte was a later creation with lighter ingredients in honour of Queen Margherita of Savoy’s visit to Siena in 1879. Of course, just where cocoa and chocolate came from in medieval Italy is left unclear! Whichever version is true, they’re both delicious. And finally…those spices? They were thought to have aphrodisiac properties, bringing troubled couples together. Perhaps a slice of panpepato promises not just delicious flavours but a night of romance when it is chilly outside?
I was really pleased with how easy this was to make and how this turned out. Sometimes a recipe can feel like a slog, especially where you have lots of steps to follow, but it was really pleasant to prepare the almonds, hazelnuts and candied peel, and then measure out the various spices.
Beyond the measuring, you don’t need to more than pour all the dry ingredients into a large bowl, make a syrup from honey, butter, sugar and a few pieces of dark chocolate, them mix the lot and bake it. Once it came out of the oven and had cooled down, I dusted it with cocoa and rubbed it with a pastry brush. Some recipes suggested icing sugar, but I thought this would look a little more sophisticated. Other recipes suggested a coating of chocolate, but I think that would have been too rich even for me!
The flavour is reminiscent of British fruit cake, but without all the dried vine fruits – you’ve got nuts and candied citrus, plus spices and a bit of depth from the cocoa and chocolate. There isn’t really a chocolate flavour as such, but I think the cocoa helps provide a balance to the sweetness of the honey and sugar. And of course the cocoa also provides a dramatic contrast to the pale cream colour of the almonds and hazelnuts. Some recipes suggest coarsely chopping the nuts, but I love the pattern of the whole nuts when you slice into the panpepato.
From what I have found, there is no single “correct” recipe that you have to follow. You can play around with the types of nuts you use – just almonds, just hazelnuts, or add some pine nuts or pistachios – and there are various different dried fruits you could use. Some recipes have figs or sultanas, and even more exotic items like candied papaya or melon could be interesting. Finally, you can also try different spices in this recipe, but I do think you need to have that black pepper as a nod to this recipe’s origins.
I’d look at this as a sweet, rather than a cake or a bread. It is absolutely delicious, but it is also incredibly rich, so you might be surprised just how little of it you want to eat in one go. It is also a treat that will last for a while, so a good one to have prepared for surprise guests. I think it is great with tea or coffee, cut into very thin slices and then into nibble-sized morsels.
To make Panpepato (makes 1 slab)
• 150g skinned hazelnuts
• 150g blanched almonds
• 100g candied orange peel
• 100g candied lemon peel
• 50g plain flour
• 30g cocoa powder
• 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
• 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
• 100g caster sugar
• 225g orange blossom honey
• 3 tablespoons water
• 50g dark chocolate
• 25g unsalted butter
• Cocoa powder, for dredging
1. Preheat the oven to 180°C. Put the nuts on two separate trays, and toast in the oven for 10-15 minutes until fragrant and just golden. Watch them closely – the hazelnuts will be done before the almonds. When ready, remove from the oven and leave to cool.
2. Rub some greaseproof paper with a little vegetable oil, and use it to line a 20cm square tin. If you prefer, you can also use rice paper but this will stick to the finished panpepato – it’s a question of personal preference.
3. Reduce the oven heat to 150°C.
4. Chop the peel into fairly small chunks. Place in a bowl with the nuts, flour, cocoa powder and ground spices. Mix well.
5. Put the sugar, honey, water, butter and chocolate into a saucepan. Heat gently until the sugar dissolves, and boil until the mixture reaches the “soft ball” stage (or 113°C/235°F on a thermometer).
6. Pour the syrup onto the dry ingredients and mix well. Transfer to the tin. Use a metal spoon or spatula rubbed with a little butter or oil to flatten the mixture.
7. Bake the panpepato for 35-40 minutes. The surface will look “set” when the panpepato is done. Remove from the oven and leave to cool completely. If you have an uneven panpepato, take a piece of greaseproof paper rubbed with a little oil – lay on top of the still-warm panpepato and press to even it out.
8. Remove the panpepato from the tin, peel off the greaseproof paper and trim off the edges (they will be a bit hard). If using rice paper, leave it on the panpepato. Dust the top lightly with cocoa and rub lightly with your fingers or a pastry brush so a bit of the fruit and nut detail shows up.
9. Store in an airtight container. Cut into thin slices to serve.