Panforte: Siena's Medieval Christmas Cake

This delicious Christmas cake from Siena has a unique history and composition. Paneforte, translated as “strong bread”, might best be described as a peppery fruitcake made of a number of different spices, honey, dried candied fruits, and nuts to create a rich flavor.

Panforte Christmas Cake from SienaPerfect for a wintery eve whether in Siena or the snowy Alps, panforte is a delicious dense holiday treat in Italy, which originated in the Medieval cuisine of the 1200s. © Hemera/ThinkStock.

Today’s panforte (sometimes called Panepepato) is a descendent of a very early traditional cake. In Italy during the Middle Ages rare, expensive spices from the East, including black pepper, were used lavishly for making flat dense cakes. Honey was used for cakes instead of sugar and this is part of the reason for the dense, chewy consistency. Though sugar was in existence then, it was predominately used for medicinal purposes, not cooking; refined sugar was not used in cooking until the Renaissance period.

Another thing to consider is that early versions of panforte were made before there was refrigeration or other modern preservation techniques, so the dried fruits and nuts were perfect ingredients to help this nutritious treat last over time or on long journeys.

In the early 19th century, cooks began adding chocolate to the traditional panforte recipe, creating a tasty version now referred to as Torta della Dama (“Ladies Cake”). One other popular variation is the Panforte Margherita, created in honor of the Italian Queen, the wife of King Umberto I di Savoia, when she visited Siena in 1879.

In addition to these practical elements, the origin of panforte is associated with many legends. There are those in Siena who would tell you that this cake was prepared for the baby Jesus himself. Others say panforte was first created in 1205 by poor tenants of the Montecellesi nunnery, who brought it to the nuns as a form of payment. Some astisanal paneforte is still made today in a round pan lined with communion wafers, rather than parchment paper, rendering it easy to remove. No matter how panforte first came into existence, this is truly a distinct Italian Christmas cake to consider: dark and dense in texture, delicious with coffee, or a dessert wine like Vin Santo.

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