Around the world, you will find some form of fruitcake served as a traditional holiday dish. From the UK and Canada to the Bahamas, one can find cakes made from dried or candied fruits, nuts and flour as a sweet to end a Christmas or New Year’s feast. Here in the US, it has become the butt of holiday jokes, thanks to Johnny Carson’s observation that there is only really one fruitcake which is passed on from family to family – or ‘re-gifted’ as we call it now in the post-Seinfeld era. But I confess to enjoying fruitcake, and the 4 loaves I made with this recipe will not survive to adorn my Christmas table. An embarrassing revelation to make, as I was alone all this past week, and can’t blame their disappearance on anyone else!
Pan pepato, or ‘peppered’ bread, is a fruit cake which hails from either Siena or Ferrara, depending upon the source, and you will probably find others that claim to have first produced this spicy cake – hearing firsthand from locals the stories behind their favorite dishes is one of my favorite things about our Italiaoutdoors Food and Wine Italy tours. In this case, depending upon the ‘legend’, panpepato is either the predecessor or antecedent of pan forte, ‘strong’ bread. Both are fruit cakes, pan pepato (or panpepato) is flavored with black pepper and chocolate, while pan forte (or panforte) is milder, with the chocolate and pepper omitted.
Documentation of these fruitcakes dates back to the 1200s, and shows that this type of bread was paid to Siena monasteries as a tithe. About this time, there are references to the Crusaders carrying this long-lasting sweet on their quests, to sustain them during sieges. Several sources I came across also note the strongly spiced bread was valued by said knights for it’s aphrodisiac qualities. There are also documents that mention panforte being served at the banquets of the Venetian aristocracy, which may be the route by which various spices were introduced to the recipe.
In Ferrara, panpepato is served from Christmas day to Epiphany, but is traditionally offered on New Year’s Eve. In 1465, the Duke of Ferrara, Borso d’Este celebrated the feast of St. Martin with an elaborate banquet that included pan pepato with gold pieces inserted in each cake. The bakers of Ferrara then became famous for this dish, and the Ferrarese would present a panpepato to nobility and to the Pope to gain favor. As recently as World War II, the Ferrarese sent an 11 pound panpepato to General Eisenhower.
Today you will find many shops across Italy making panpepato, and more commonly, panforte. Each has it’s own closely guarded recipe and distinctive packaging. For example, the Bonci family, pastry chefs from Tuscany, claim their panpepato, a “descendant of the ancient Medicean recipe, is a sweet delicacy and a voyage in time. Almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts and figs dance among spices wrapped in honey, all shielded in a dark chocolate covering adorned with red pepper corns. A triumph of flavors at the court of taste.”
I developed the following recipe by grabbing what I thought were the best features of several recipes. More than one called for an ingredient called ‘runny honey’, which was simply watered down honey. One called for espresso, so I combined both and ‘watered down’ my honey with espresso. The spices varied from recipe to recipe, and included black, white, or pink peppercorns, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, cardamom, and coriander. Another variation you could try is replacing some or all of the candied orange peel with figs or other dried fruits. Lots of wonderful options to try as I strive to achieve “a triumph of flavors at the court of taste.”
(Makes 4 small loaves)
1/2 cup raisins
1/4 cup dry marsala
3/4 cup walnuts, toasted and chopped
3/4 cup hazelnuts, toasted and chopped
3/4 cup almonds, toasted and chopped
1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted
3/4 cup semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
1/2 cup candied orange peel, chopped
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon cloves
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup flour
5 tablespoons brewed espresso
6 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons butter
Confectioner’s sugar for dusting
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
In a small bowl, soak the raisins in the marsala for 30 minutes.
In a large bowl, combine the nuts, chocolate, orange peel, cinnamon, black pepper, cloves, nutmeg, salt and flour.
In a small saucepan, combine the espresso, honey, and butter. Heat until butter has melted, and stir to combine.
Add the honey mixture to the nuts and stir to combine.
Spoon the mixture into four small non-stick loaf pans, smoothing with the back of a spoon. Place in the preheated oven and bake for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven, and allow to cool slightly. Remove the loaves from the pan and allow to cool completely.
Top with confectioner’s sugar or cocoa, and serve with a sweet wine such as vin santo.