Here's April skipping along. Perhaps you're as hypnotized as I by the strident or lilting songs of birds on a wire or budding tree branches, sounding forth the fertile advent of spring. I've had a hankering for some time to put myself in front of bowls of almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, candied lemon and orange zests, figs, raisins, open bottles of spices and ground cacao, acacia honey and throw handfuls and pinches of them all together, then get my hands dirty mixing them into some semblance of Panpepato, that celebrated, scrumptious dolce from Toscana.
I'm but a novice when it comes to its mysterious alchemical substance, but a great admirer of its dense texture and savor. Legend has it that in a convent during a siege of the city of Sienna back in medieval times, concerned about the health of the inhabitants of the city, one of the nuns, a Sister Berta, came up with a sort of dense high energy bread consisting of honey, candied fruits, almonds, spices and lots of pepper. Now there are as many versions of panpepato as there are legends. The more delicate tasting Panforte Margherita, with its milder mix of spices, was created in 1879 for the occasion of Queen Margherita's visit to Sienna.
Panpepato is normally enjoyed during Christmas, but I'm often one to side step tradition. So in the budding of spring I'm sending out my "rustic" variation on this age-old sweet. One of the reasons I so like Panpepato is that it has neither egg nor milk nor cream, and I easily switched rice flour for the small amount of flour my recipe calls for— so no gluten! Wine note: Pour yourself a glass of Vin Santo, Moscadello di Montalcino, or Brachetto d'Acqui to sip along with a thin slice of Panpepato. You won't be disappointed
As for links, I wanted to give you one to this wonderful website: Grain, an international non-governmental organization which promotes the sustainable management and use of agricultural biodiversity based on people's control over genetic resources and local knowledge, where you'll find wonderful in-depth articles and well-documented information. And this is their blog: Food Crisis and the Global Land Grab. And it seems Michelle Obama's organic garden is ruffling the feathers of the pesticide guys and gals. They sent her a letter to that effect. You can read it here.
Panpepato my variation on a recipe from the cookbook La Bonne Cuisine Italienne des Carluccio.
110 gr (2/3 cup) toasted whole almonds
110 gr (2/3 cup) toasted whole hazelnuts, rub off skins after toasting
85 gr ((3/4 cup) slightly toasted walnut halves
55 gr (1/3 cup) Muscat or Sultana raisins (softened in warm water then drained)
60 gr (1/2 cup + 1 tsp) cocoa powder
100 gr (3/4 cup) candied lemon and orange zest, coarsely chopped
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp freshly ground nutmeg
1 tsp freshly ground pepper
130 gr (1/3 cup + 2 tsp) acacia honey
Flour to bind, about 30 gr (or 1/8 cup). I use rice flour to avoid the gluten.
Preheat oven to 160-170 °C (325 F°)
Cover the bottom of a baking sheet or pan with buttered parchment paper.
Combine all the ingredients except the flour and honey. Bring honey along with a couple drops of water to a boil in a heavy saucepan. Cook until it registers 130 °C (250 °F) on a candy thermometer, about 3 minutes. The honey will be frothy.
Immediately pour over the fruit-nut mixture and, working quickly, combine. Add the flour and continue to quickly mix. At first it will seem dry, but as you continue to work it the mixture will soften. You might find it easier to work it with your hands, in which event you can pull on a pair of rubber gloves. Form into a rounded, compact loaf, and bake in the oven for 30 - 40 minutes. Keep an eye on it while baking; the top should’t burn. It should feel slightly soft and springy to the touch when done.
Remove from the oven and set on a rack to cool completely. Using a fine meshed sieve, dust the top with a tBsp or so of cocoa powder. Keep in an airtight container for up to 3 weeks…perhaps longer, if there’s any left. The flavors deepen overtime.
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