Panforte is Siena's
signature Christmas pastry, a concoction made from candied fruit, nuts, honey and spices whose origins fade into the mists of time. One theory holds that it was first made by a nun who discovered mice had gnawed open the bags of spices knights returning from the Crusades had given her convent.
To throw out that much wealth -- remember, spices were worth considerably more than gold at the time -- was unthinkable, so she combined the contents of the drawer with candied fruit, almonds, nuts, honey, and just enough flour for it all to hold together, shaped the mixture into a disk, and put it to bake.
It smelled so good when it emerged from the oven that she hesitated to taste it, fearing that if she took a bite she'd be unable to stop, thus surrendering to gluttony
. And as she hesitated, a cat walked in and said, "What are you waiting for?"
Cats don't talk but Satan does, and the nun dumped the cake over him; he vanished in an acrid cloud of smoke. By the time the other nuns came, drawn by her screams, the cake's aroma had eliminated Satan's stench, and the Mother Superior, wondering what in the world could possibly best The Evil One so handily, ran her finger over the bottom of the pan, and... The Sienese have been making Panforte ever since.
Most published recipes make large quantities, and while one can reduce them (as I have here
), they still call for ingredients that are not easy to find, for example good quality candied citron, candied orange peel, and squash rind. Judy Francini
has instead developed a recipe that uses dried figs, which are much easier to find, and chopped walnuts instead of almonds.
While it isn't strictly traditional, it is very tasty, and you will find this sort of variation on absolutely traditional panforte in Siena's pastry shops.