So You Don’t Like Fruitcake?
I suspect there is no cliche in American holiday cuisine greater than the Fruitcake. Usually a rather dense affair of strangely colored candied fruits and nuts, saved sometimes only by the addition of a rather healthy dose of rum or bourbon. It is the butt of jokes, the gift nobody wants, right? Well, what if I told you there is a “fruitcake” recipe that is so magnificent that it defies the very concept of fruitcake? And that this recipe makes a “cake” that is such a delight that people will actually look forward to receiving one? Or that you will want to make one to keep on hand to serve as an unusual and elegant dessert or with coffee during the holidays? Or that you will cut pieces off of it to take with you to that holiday party that you forgot you had to bring a dish to share and that people will then be asking you for the recipe once they have tried it? Would you be willing to give the whole “fruitcake” thing a second look?
Panforte is an Italian fruitcake that is more of a confection than a cake. Bearing little resemblance to fruitcake as we know it, it is a delightful concoction of candied citrus peels, nuts, spices and sometimes chocolate, bound together with a honey and sugar syrup and a little bit of flour. My recipe does not contain chocolate, but instead relies on a combination of cinnamon, coriander, clove and nutmeg. Taught to me many years ago by my step-father, here is the recipe that has become a holiday tradition in my family, along with the step by step photographs and the video of the process for making the honey and sugar syrup, which I hope you find helpful, as that is the thing that I think keeps most people from trying their hand at making confectionary. It is not as difficult as people think, however, and the end result is worth the effort.
Before you get started, be sure you have a 9′ round metal cake pan, a candy thermometer, and a large, clean brown paper grocery bag that you will use to line the bottom of the cake pan. Do not be tempted to use parchment paper for this step – it is not sturdy enough! You will also need wax paper and aluminum foil to wrap the Panforte once it is done.
2 cups whole, raw almonds
1 cup candied orange peel, coarsely chopped
1 cup candied lemon peel, coarsely chopped
1 tsp. freshly grated lemon peel
1 tsp. freshly grated orange peel
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground coriander
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/2 cup all-purpose flour, plus more to prepare your cake pan
3/4 cup granulated white sugar
3/4 cup honey
2 Tbsp. butter, plus more to prepare your cake pan
1/4 tsp. salt
Confectioner’s Sugar (10x)
1) Prep the cake pan first so that it is ready. Using a pencil, trace the outline of the cake pan onto the brown paper bag. (Hint: I always use the side of the paper bag that does not have the seam in it.) Cut the circle out of the paper bag. Using the extra butter and a paper towel, thoroughly grease the bottom and sides of the cake pan, as well as both sides of the paper bag circle that you just cut out. Place the greased paper bag circle on the bottom of the greased cake pan. Put a few tablespoons of flour in the greased and lined cake pan and tap it around to thoroughly coat the bottom and sides, and then discard the excess flour.
2) Set the oven rack in the middle of the oven. Pre-heat oven to 300 degrees F.
3) In a large metal bowl, combine the almonds, candied orange peel, candied lemon peel, grated fresh lemon peel, grated fresh orange peel, cinnamon, coriander, cloves, nutmeg, and the 1/2 cup of flour. Stir well to combine.
4) In a large sauce pan, combine the granulated white sugar, honey, 2 Tbsp, butter, and salt. Over medium-low heat, stirring frequently at first and then constantly as it starts to bubble, bring the solution to 265 degrees F (hard ball stage,) checking the temperature with the candy thermometer.
5) Once the sugar and honey solution has reached 265 degrees F, quickly and carefully pour it over the nut and fruit mixture. Using a large wooden spoon, stir to thoroughly coat the nut and fruit mixture with the hot honey and sugar. It will begin to cool immediately, so you need to work fairly quickly. Once thoroughly combined, scrape the “batter” into prepared cake pan. Use the wooden spoon to evenly spread it in the pan.
6) Immediately place in the center of the middle of the preheated 300 degree F oven, and bake for 45 minutes, or until just the edges all the way around the cake are bubbling. (Do not over-bake because it will make your Panforte very hard.)
7) Place on a cooling rack and let cool overnight.
8) To unmold from the pan once it is thoroughly cooled, run a sharp knife all the way around the edge of the Panforte. Slip a fork down the edge of the Panforte and under the paper bag lining on the bottom of the pan, and lift up. Turn the Panforte out onto the rack.9) To remove the paper bag lining, use a sharp knife to help separate it from the Panforte while you peel it back and off.
9) Cut two 18″ pieces of aluminum foil, and two 18″ pieces of wax paper. Overlap one long edge of the aluminum foil by several inches, then place the wax paper on top, overlapping the edges of it in the same way.
10) Pour out a circle of confectioner’s sugar that is just a little bit wider than the Panforte and about 1/2″ deep into the center of the wax paper. Place the Panforte in the center of the circle of confectioner’s sugar, then pour about the same amount on top of the Panforte. Using your hands, spread the sugar so that it coats the top and sides of the Panforte. Tightly wrap the wax paper and the aluminum foil up around the Panforte.
11) To serve, use a sharp knife to cut, and then arrange small pieces on a serving plate. The confectioner’s sugar that clings to it lends a festive and wintry flare. Enjoy!