Tag Archives: siena

{5} Cavallucci

When I started doing my annual Christmas baking project all those years ago, I tended to focus on what I knew, and with the exception of panettone, pretty much everything was from Northern Europe. Over the years I’ve looked beyond the well-known bakes, which has led me to look more and more at Italian Christmas cookies.

We have all seen those rainbow cookies with a chocolate glaze, but what I find interesting are the traditional regional specialities. Every part of the country seems to have its own unique baked goods, often reflecting the traditions and ingredients of the area the recipe comes from, which makes it rewarding to explore, as well as to make and then eat. Yes, unlike looking at lots of churches and medieval villages, exploring the culinary landscape has the bonus of being delicious. And today’s Christmas treat takes us to the city of Siena. Meet my batch of cavallucci.

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The name cavallucci literally means “little horses”. They are said to date back to the time of Lorenzo de’ Medici (also known rather modestly as Lorenzo the Magnificent and who ruled Florence in the late 1400s). Their name comes either from the fact that the original cookies had an impression of a horse on top, or due to the fact they were eaten by stable hands who worked as part of whatever passed for the postal system of the gentry in those days.

Fortunately the flavour of cavallucci is very far removed from anything horse-like. They contain a lot of walnuts and candied orange peel, as well as traditional spices including coriander and aniseed.

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Luckily, this is a recipe that is fairly simple to make. Once you’re prepared the dry ingredients (flour, nuts, spices, candied and dried fruits), you add a sugar and honey syrup to forma dough. This is left to cool for a moment, then rolled out and sliced into individual cookies for baking. No fancy moulds, no intricate decoration, no gilding and no messing around with icing or tempered chocolate. What a relief! And if you’re looking for a vegan option, swap the honey for your favourite syrup. Or if you’re a honey fan, you can swap some of the sugar and water for more honey.

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These are very rustic-looking little morsels of festive cheer. They look like they have been dipped in sugar, but they’ve actually been rolled in flour before baking. I think it looks rather nice, as it goes them a slightly snowy appearance, and it means the cookies have a more balances level of sweetness.

As I was making these, I was reminded of that other Siena classic, panforte. You prepare the dry ingredients, add lots of spices, nuts and candied peel, then bind it all with a sugar syrup, although the ratios of ingredients are different, and cavallucci include some raising agent. I did wonder if a raising agent was traditional, and I think it probably is not, but most of the classic recipes that I found, including that of the Siena tourist board, suggest using baker’s ammonia. I used this too as I have some in my baking cupboard, and I’m always on the look out for a recipe that uses this most stinky of ingredients. It certainly makes the cavallucci puff up nicely in the oven and you get a lovely light texture, with a crisp outside and slightly soft centre. If you can’t get hold of baker’s ammonia, other recipes suggest using baking soda, so it should be alright to use that instead – if you do give it a go, let me know how you get on.

To make Cavallucci (makes 50)

• 200g shelled walnuts
• 100g candied peel (e.g. orange, lemon, citron)
• 30g icing sugar
• 2 teaspoons baker’s ammonia
• 2 teaspoons ground coriander
• 1 teaspoon mixed spices
• 1/4 teaspoon aniseeds, crushed
• pinch of black pepper
• 650g plain flour
• 300g white sugar
• 150ml water
• 25g honey

1. Preheat the oven to 150°C and line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper rubbed lightly with some neutral oil.

2. Roughly chop the walnuts and candied fruits. Put in a large bowl and add the icing sugar, spices, baker’s ammonia (or baking soda) and flour. Mix well.

3. Put the sugar, water and honey into a saucepan. Heat gently until the sugar has dissolved and there are no crystals left (you want the sugar to just dissolve, but do not let it boil). Remove from the heat, allow to cool for a few minutes, then pour the liquid over the dry ingredients. Mix well with a wooden spoon. It should be firm but sticky.

4. When the mixture is still warm but cool enough to handle, take teaspoons of the mixture and drop onto a plate dusted with flour.

5. Roll each piece into a ball (it should be coated lightly with flour), place on the baking sheet and flatten to around 1cm thickness.

6. Bake the cavallucci for around 15 minutes until they are puffed up, but they are still pale (they only get a very slight colour during baking).

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{10} Panforte

As we get close and close to the big day, the Christmas baking gets grander and grander. I’m not going the whole hog and making a Christmas cake, but the Italian panforte gets pretty close. This is a real step up from small biscuits, and looks, smells and tastes amazing!

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Panforte, Italian for “strong bread”, is not much more than lots of toasted almonds and hazelnuts paired with candied citrus peel and fruit, flavoured with spices and then bound together by a sugar and honey syrup. The result is rich, incredibly rich, but it really does have a flavour that can be described as the essence of Christmas. It’s also the sort of thing that you can have sitting somewhere, so you or guests can cut off the occasional sliver to enjoy with coffee or as an evening treat with a glass of liqueur.

This cake is a tradition from the Italian city of Siena. There are two versions, essentially white (as I’ve made here) and black, which is made with more dried fruits (such as figs and sultanas) and cocoa. It’s just a matter of personal choice which you prefer, but I like the former.

I’ve seen some recipes that say panforte should contain seventeen ingredients. This is said to link back to the number of districts within the city walls of Siena, and I quite liked the idea of trying to do this. It means you’re forced to add a bit of variety in terms of the ingredients. In my recipe, if you ignore the water in the syrup, but count the mixed peel (orange, lemon and citron) as three different ingredients, I did indeed get to the magic number. What does matter, however, is that if you’re going to make one of these, you need to go with the right ingredients, and try to use good nuts and candied peel. Almonds and hazelnuts are traditional, but I’m sure good pecans or walnuts would do the trick, but I’d  perhaps draw the line at putting peanuts in there! The candied peel is a must though – I used part candied peel and part papaya for the fruit, and while you could skip the papaya and instead use pineapple, apricots or even preserved pear, you should not miss out the citrus entirely. It’s such a fundamental part of the flavour.

You’ll see a lot of versions of panforte, from thick and even cakes in stores to my more “rustic” version. The rougher look is due to using whole nuts, rather than chopping then. You can chop the almonds and hazelnuts, but if you do, you don’t get the amazing look when you cut the slices. In addition, as the cake is so rich, I’ve kept it thin. When you taste how rich it is, you won’t feel the need to make a deeper panforte, as a little really does go a long way!

So there you have it – an Italian option in place of Christmas cake, and it’s not too late to make this – 20 minutes to prepare, and 30 minutes to bake. You’ve still got time!

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To make Panforte:

• 100g almonds, skinned
• 100g hazelnuts, skinned
• 100g candied citrus peel (I used orange, lemon and citron)
• 135g candied fruit (such as papaya or melon)
• 50g plain flour
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
• 1/4 teaspoon ground mace
• 1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
• pinch black pepper
• 50g honey (I used orange blossom)
• 150g white sugar
• 25g butter
• cold water

1. Preheat the oven to 160°C. Grease a 20cm (8 inch) loose-bottomed tin with butter. Line with rice paper (if using).

2. Put the hazelnuts and almonds onto another baking tray and toast in the oven until just starting to colour. Remove from the oven and put into a large bowl.

3. As the nuts are cooling, cut the peel and papaya/mango into chunks (aim for pea-sized pieces). Add to the nuts.

4. Mix the flour and spices in a bowl. Sieve into the nut/fruit mixture, then stir briefly.

5. Make the syrup – put the honey, sugar and butter into a saucepan with some water. Warm on a medium heat until the mixture reaches the soft ball stage (113°C/235°F). If you don’t have a candy thermometer, then drop a little of the syrup into a bowl of very cold water – it should form a soft ball!

6. Pour the hot syrup onto the other ingredients and stir with a spoon until combined. Transfer to the prepared tin. Flatten the mixture with a buttered spoon (or if you have asbestos hands, but butter on your palms and pat the mixture into shape).

7. Bake the panforte for around 30 minutes until the syrup is bubbling. The mixture will firm up when the cake cools. Remove from the oven, allow to cool, then transfer to a plate to cool completely(*).

8. When the panforte is cool, dust with icing sugar, and rub lightly with your fingers so a bit of the fruit and nut details are clear. Serve in small slices with coffee or liquer after dinner. Or any time!

(*) If the panforte is difficult to remove from the tin, put it in a warm oven to soften slightly.

Worth making? This is a superb cake, and unbelievably easy compared to just how good the final result tastes.

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