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Siena's Panforte -- A Christmas Delight

Siena's Duomo, from San DomenicoCHRISTMAS MEANS MANY THINGS -- it's a religious holiday, but also an opportunity for families to gather, strengthening the ties between the generations. This aspect of the holiday is especially important in parts of Italy that were abandoned by the younger generation during the economic boom of the 1960s, when the unemployed in the provinces moved to the northern cities to take factory jobs. One of the highlights of the reunion is of course the Christmas dinner, which varies tremendously from place to place; in Tuscany and Emilia it's meat based, featuring, among other things, cappelletti (the Modenese variation on tortellini) in capon broth, and later boiled capon. Desserts tend to be sumptuous, and perhaps Siena's most of all: Panforte, a heavenly mixture of honey, spices, candied fruit, and almonds whose origin stretches back into the mists of time:

Some say it was invented in the 1200s by a novitiate nun, Suor Leta, who discovered a mound of sugar, spices and almonds in the bottom of the spice cabinet -- mice had chewed holes in the bags, and the precious offerings made by pilgrims returning from the Holy Land were hopelessly mixed. Her first thought was to gather the mess in a bag and bury it, but that sort of waste was a sin. So she stood there, stroking her chin and wondering what to do, when a black cat came into the kitchen and the thought came to her: Put it all on the fire and make yourself something tasty. So she did; the sugar caramelized, the spices amalgamated, and to keep it all from sticking to the pan she stirred in some honey, then the remaining almonds and put the mixture into the oven to let it set. It smelled delicious and she was feeling very pleased with herself, when the cat, who had been rubbing up against her and purring, said, "Aren't you going to taste it?" Cats don't talk but the Devil does; she dumped the contents of the pan over him and he changed to his true form, vanishing in a foul-smelling puff of smoke. By the time Suor Berta, the mother Superior, got to the kitchen the dessert's heavenly aroma had overcome the devil's stench; curious to know what was powerful enough to overcome the Evil One Berta tasted what was left in the pan...Siena, Piazza del Campo from the Duomo

Others say Panforte is older still: An orphan who followed the comet to Baby Jesus tried to give him the crust of bread he had in his pocket; Joseph took it, gave a crumb to one of the birds whose nest was in the rafters overhead, and returned the rest to the boy, whose eyes filled with tears at the thought that his gift was too poor. Then a voice thanked him, and when he returned home to the hovel he shared with his grandmother he found his parents, his mother radiant and his father in burnished armor, while the table was decked for a feast, with sumptuous platters arranged around an exquisite pastry made with almonds, honey and candied fruit...

No matter how you look at it, there is something magical about the pan pepato (peppered (i.e. spiced) bread) that developed into panforte. Over the centuries there have been many variations, as new ingredients were discovered or became available. In the 1820s the Parenti bakery introduced a chocolate laced variety that was immensely popular for a time, and is still sold, but now the most popular varieties are Panforte Nero and Panforte Margherita. Panforte nero is, as its name implies, dark, and has an underlying bitter taste conferred by bitter almonds; it's sought out by connoisseurs. Panforte Margherita is light colored and much more delicate, with a dusting of confectioner's sugar; Enrico Righi developed the recipe in 1879 and first offered it to Queen Margerita, who came to see the Palio with King Umberto every year.

Most printed recipes for panforte yield industrial quantities -- 50 pounds or more. These are more manageable; the quantities for panforte nero are from Il Re Dei Cuochi, published anonymously by Salani in 1885, while theose for Panforte Margherita are from a collection of traditional Tuscan recipes.

Panforte Nero: Panforte Margherita:
2 1/2 ounces baking chocolate 1 1/2 cups (180 g) flour
2/3 cup sugar 1 3/4 cups confectioner's sugar
1 cup less 2 tablespoons shelled almonds 3/4 cup honey
1/2 cup honey 1 cup less 2 tablespoons nutmeats
4 shelled bitter almonds 1 3/4 cup shelled almonds
1 1/2 cups (180 g) flour 2 ounces candied citron
A handful of pine nuts 8 ounces candied fruit peel (oranges and such)
1/2 teaspoon. ground cinnamon 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
About 4 ounces candied citron A pinch of allspice
The grated rind of a lemon 1 scant teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves 1 tablespoon confectioner's sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground pepper

15 Wafers (the kind used for communion; available from delicatessens)

Once you have assembled the ingredients, proceed as follows:

Parboil the nuts and toast them lightly. If you are making panforte nero, mash half the almonds with the bitter almonds, chop the rest with the pine nuts, and then combine the two; if you are making panforte Margherita chop the nuts together. Dice the candied fruit and mix it and the spices with the nuts, then mix in the flour.

Line a 9-inch diameter deep dish pan with the wafers.

Using a copper or heavy-bottomed pot and a very low flame, set the sugar, honey, chocolate (for panforte nero) and a touch of water to boil. Stir continuously with a wooden spoon, being careful to keep the mixture from sticking. When the syrup reaches the hard ball stage, remove the pot from the stove and stir in the fruit and nut mixture. Pour the resulting batter into the pan, smoothing the top with a dampened knife. Bake in a 300 F oven for about a half hour. The panforte should not brown.

When the panforte's done, remove the pan from the oven and trim the excess wafers sticking up around it. If you are making panforte Margherita, sprinkle the confectioner's sugar over it. Serve cold, with vinsanto.

A final word on panforte: It is available in delicatessens outside of Siena (generally the Margherita variety), in several sizes, the most common of which is about a half-inch thick and 9 inches across (1 cm by about 27, for the metric among us). You may also be able to find the thicker variety that's proudly displayed in the windows of Siena's bars and pastry shops, which is what you should buy if you visit Siena; I suggest you seek out the Pasticceria Bini, behind the duomo, on the street that circles down to the baptistery (exit Piazza del Duomo to the left of the cathedral).

Other Tuscan Christmas dishes
Ricciarelli, Sienese almond cookies!

Scasso dei Cesari, Tenuta di ValgianoON A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT NOTE, it's time to start thinking about what wine to serve with Christmas dinner. Tenuta di Valgiano, a winery in the hills overlooking Lucca, has recently changed hands; Laura and Moreno have improved production techniques and begun to bottle the wines rather than sell them in bulk. I stopped in their stand at Vinitaly in April but the wines were freshly bottled and unsettled. When I visited the winery this August, however, I was quite impressed.

Il Giallo dei Muri is a blend of Chardonnay, Trebbiano and Malvasia; the Chardonnay is harvested ripe and fermented in barriques for body, while the Trebbiano and Malvasia are harvested extremely ripe, towards the end of October, to maximize their fruitiness. The 1996 vintage is a pleasing yellow with faint pink highlights. The bouquet is both complex and elegant, with tropical fruit, apricot and wisteria nicely balanced by delicate spicy notes from the wood. On the palate the wine has rich fruit, especially apricots and citrus, and a pleasingly light touch of wood that complements rather than rivals the fruit. The finish is clean and warm, with notes of apricot on the end. It will go wonderfully with more complex fish dishes (it would overpower something steamed, I fear), and also has the stuffing necessary to nicely complement a roasted turkey.

Rosso di Palistorti is primarily Sangiovese, though there are also Merlot, Syrah and several other rarer varietals, all of which are from old vines. The wine is aged for a year, 2/3 in barriques, where it acquires spice and soft tannins, and the remainder in steel, which preserves fruitiness. The 1996 vintage is an intense pigeon blood ruby, with a pleasing mixture of stewed maraschino cherries and spice on the nose. On the palate there is again nice fruit, with very smooth, well rounded tannins and a clean, dusty finish. It will go quite nicely with pasta dishes, and also with white meats.

Scasso dei Cesari, Valgiano's more important red wine, is also a Sangiovese-Merlot-Syrah blend. The Merlot is macerates for a month on the skins to increase tannin polymerization, and the wine spends two years in wood (light toast, for softer tannins). The 1995 vintage is an elegant deep red; the bouquet is intense, with a pleasing mix of stewed cherries, fruit and underbrush complemented by well integrated spicy notes. On the palate it is very well rounded with rich fruit, smooth tannins, and a crisp clean finish. It will go superbly with richly prepared white meats, roasts and red meats, and would also be nice with delicate cheeses.

Good Food & Drink,
Kyle Phillips

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