As a small child I refused to eat cake. Christmas cake was the worst, being cake, with sultanas, and alcohol and without icing.
Birthday cake was also off the agenda: for the twelve years or so of childhood birthday parties I had ice-cream cakes. Or baklava. At some point I discovered chocolate mud cake, a barely set, gooey pudding like cake rich and fudge. This was acceptable. We bought a croquembouche for my twenty-first birthday.
I still dislike sponge cake, with its dry polystyrene texture and melted polystyrene flavoured fake cream. I will still most likely turn down cake when offered. I’m not on a diet: I just don’t like it.
And then I discovered panforte – a highly spiced very dense fruit cake also known as Siena cake. Siena cake was made in Siena as early as the 13th century, and was even an official part of the tithes paid to an order of nuns in region. Made sweet with boiled honey and dried fruits, this cake basically set itself up for sainthood when chocolate was brought back from the new world. More toffee-like than cake-like (the name literally means “strong bread”) this is cake I can get to know and love. It is rich, dense, nutty, spicy with cinnamon and pepper, and not too sweet.
Perfect for a grown-up after dinner sweet, with a little liqueur and very strong espresso. And I know I would have loved this as a kid: no icky dryness, no fake cream and no sultanas.
This recipe was originally from www.taste.com (note that I have tinkered a little with the quantities + ingredients from the original, but the method remains the same)
Olive oil (for greasing the tin)
100g whole blanched almonds
100g whole hazelnuts
200 g mixed dried fruit, roughly chopped. I like mixed peel, dried apricots and dried figs in about equal quantities. You can also use candied melon or dried cranberries or dried cherries. Even sultanas, which I don’t really like ...
100g (2/3 cup) plain flour
2 tbsp cocoa powder
1 tsp cinnamon powder
½ tsp powdered ginger
½ tsp ground cardamom
¼ tsp nutmeg
¼ tsp cracked black pepper
¼ tsp powder chilli powder (optional)
100g good-quality dark chocolate (at least 75% cocoa solids), chopped
125ml (1/2 cup) honey
Icing sugar (or gold powder, which I use at Christmas), to dust
Preheat oven to 180°C. Brush a 20cm (base measurement) springform pan with melted butter to lightly grease. Line the base with non-stick baking paper.
Spread the almonds over half a baking tray and spread the hazelnuts over the remaining half. Bake in preheated oven for 8 minutes or until toasted. Place the hazelnuts on a clean tea towel and rub to remove the skins. Reduce oven to 170°C.
Place almonds and hazelnuts in a large bowl. Add the chopped dried fruit and stir until well combined. Sift over the combined flour, cocoa, cinnamon and mixed spice and stir to combine.
Place chocolate, honey and sugar in a small saucepan and stir over medium-low heat until sugar dissolves and chocolate melts. Bring to the boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer, without stirring, for 2 minutes or until a candy thermometer reaches 116°C or 'soft ball stage' (If you don't have a thermometer, drop 1 teaspoonful of syrup into a glass of cold water. If the syrup becomes a soft ball it's at soft ball stage.)
Pour the hot chocolate mixture into the fruit mixture and, working quickly, stir until well combined. Spoon into prepared pan and smooth the surface. Bake in preheated oven for 30-35 minutes or until just firm. Remove from oven and set aside to cool. Will keep for about two weeks.
To serve, dust with icing sugar (or gold dust) and cut into thin wedges.