It is a lot, I know, to expect you - in this mad December rush - to slow down and candy your own quince. Forgive me, will you? It's just that I believe in you! I know you can do it. I know you can find the time. And furthermore, I know it'll be worth it.
Besides, candying quince isn't even all that hard. In fact, I think tracking down the quince is the hardest part (well, that and trying to core it, but never mind). You should also candy your own orange peel, if you can't find any at the grocery store (one of the charms of living in Germany: chopped candied orange peel at any old grocery store). But that's even easier than candying quince. Promise. Cross my heart!
See, what we're making is panforte. Strong bread, if you want to know the literal translation. But what panforte really is is a deep, dark nut-and-fruit confection, warm with spice, the low, sweet chew of dried plums and candied quince, all wrapped up in a cocoa-tinged, citrus-peel-flecked, honeyed batter and baked until almost black.
It's a lot of work, it's true. But what you get in return will sustain you, I promise. If the Benne Wafers were the instant gratification cookie of the holiday season, this panforte is the long, slow, steady burn.
Panforte is a traditional Italian sweet meat, cut into thin little wedges (you'll need a very sharp, very heavy knife - it's dense) and served after dinner around Christmastime. It's chewy and crunchy, not too sweet and keeps for weeks, if well-wrapped. So the way I see it, it makes for pretty great presents, if you can bear to part with what you've made. All you need is willpower, parchment paper and a bit of butcher's twine for artful wrapping and bows, and you'll have yourself some very grateful friends.
I love how panforte is both restrained and a little luxe. It's the kind of dessert that makes you feel virtuous, after all that roast goose, and elegant, with nut-studded blackish wedges lying insouciantly on little gold-rimmed plates.
Pardon all the wonky light in these photos, but we've not had much sun in Berlin these past few weeks. In fact, it hasn't done much else but snow lately, giving everything in my kitchen a rather blueish hue. But the heavy gray lid over the city doesn't feel as oppressive as it will in a few months. Right now, it's kind of cozy. We gather indoors with friends, drink tea, crunch through homemade cookies, light candles, and prepare for the holidays. In a few months, the lack of light will feel interminable. Today, it feels just right.
It's better for baking, anyway, when the sun isn't shining and you have every right to wile away the day in your kitchen.
There's little that's complicated about making panforte. In fact, other than good ingredients, you just need to be able to work quickly at crucial moments and have a little bit of muscle in your upper arms, a little bit of elbow grease.
Besides the candied quince and orange peel, you need a nice assortment of dried fruit. The original recipe, from the first Tartine cookbook, calls for dates, but says that you can use any type of dried fruit, just as long as the total amount is about 25 ounces. Since I have a burning love for prunes (and think their bright, juicy flavor works particularly well with cocoa and citrus zest), I used equal amounts of dates and prunes, plus a bunch of raisins instead of the original currants (one of the few dried fruits I really just don't dig, with their weird crunchy little selves).
You also need a whole bunch of toasted nuts - pistachios, hazelnuts and almonds - which bump this firmly into luxury territory, but it's affordable luxury, I think. The kind I can get behind.
After you toast the nuts and dice up all the fruit and zest the citrus, you toss this all with flour and cocoa and a whole mess of spices, including ground coriander, black pepper and what seems like an enormous amount of nutmeg.
To make the syrup that will bind these dusty nuggets together, you melt together sugar and honey until they bubble and froth without boiling over. Here's a good look at how the syrup should look when you're ready to pull it off the stove. And this is where you need to work quickly. The syrup, boiling hot, will hit the nuts and fruit and then, in a heartbeat, turn to what feels like hot tar. Arm yourselves, therefore, either with plastic gloves or a very heavy-duty plastic spatula and move quickly. Mix the syrup into the fruit and nuts well, moistening every last bit and making sure that no powdery streak of flour remains. If you do this well, you can skip your weight-bearing exercises for the day! Up and at 'em, folks.
Then scrape this mixture, fragrant and nubby and far too hot for dipping a finger in and tasting, into a parchment-lined springform pan and bake it in the oven until set. What's difficult at this point is not over-baking the panforte. Since the batter is so dark to begin with, it's hard to tell if it's starting to burn. Trust your nose, your oven thermometer and the kitchen timer.
This brick-like confection will cool and settle and then you can unmold it from its baking pan and cover it with a snow-like dusting of confectioner's sugar before cutting it into wedges and parceling them up. You will find yourself sneaking little tastes here and there, little nibs and nobs of the panforte that get nicked under your knife, trying to track down each individual flavor but becoming overwhelmed by the goodness of the whole. You'll cut a wedge to keep for yourself and then, later, you'll curse yourself for not making it a bigger one. Your mouth will tingle with spice.
As you can tell, I've fallen hard for this panforte. I'll be making it for many Christmases to come. Do you what to know just how hard I've fallen? So hard that I'm throwing in the towel on the cookie production for the year. Nothing's going to top this baby.
So, like I said, get to finding that quince! Time's a-wasting.
Panforte with Candied Quince
Makes 32 half-inch slices
Note: You can use any type of dried or candied fruit, in any combination, as a substitute for the fruits in the recipe as long as the total amount is about 4 1/2 cups (25 ounces).
Candied orange zest
3 large, unblemished oranges
1 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 cups sugar
1. Remove the zest from the oranges: Run a zester from the top to bottom of the orange, cutting the zest into thin strips (avoid the pith). Repeat with the remaining fruit. Reserve fruit for another use.
2. In a medium, heavy saucepan, cook the water and sugar over medium heat. Bring to a boil, stirring, until the sugar dissolves. Add the zest, lower the heat to medium-low, and cook at a gentle simmer until the zest strips become tender and semi-translucent, about 30 minutes.
3. Remove from the heat and pour into a heat-proof container. Cool completely, then store the zest in the cooking syrup in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 1 month. You should have about one-half cup (3 ounces) of candied zest.
1 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 large quince
1. Peel the quince, slice it in half, remove the core and cut the fruit crosswise into one-fourth-inch slices.
2. In a medium, heavy saucepan, combine the water and sugar over medium heat, stirring with a spoon, until the sugar dissolves. Add the fruit, reduce the heat to medium-low, and cook at a gentle simmer until the fruit is semi-translucent, about 45 minutes.
3. Remove from the heat and pour into a heat-proof container. Cool, then store the fruit in the cooking syrup in an airtight container in the refrigerator. You'll have about 1 cup (8 ounces) of fruit.
1 recipe candied quince, strained and coarsely chopped (8 ounces)
1 recipe candied orange zest, strained and coarsely chopped (3 ounces)
1 cup dates, pitted and coarsely chopped (5 ounces)
1 cup prunes, pitted and coarsely chopped (5 ounces)
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons Zante currants (4 ounces)
2 tablespoons grated orange zest
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
1 cup lightly toasted unsalted pistachios
2 cups well-toasted hazelnuts
2 cups well-toasted almonds
2/3 cup flour
1/2 cup cocoa powder
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
Freshly grated nutmeg from 1 1/2 nutmegs
3/4 teaspoon ground coriander
3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3/4 teaspoon ground cloves
3/4 cup honey
1 1/3 cups granulated sugar
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1. Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Butter a 10-inch springform pan with 2- or 3-inch sides, line with parchment paper, and butter the parchment, making sure to butter the sides of the pan well.
2. In a large mixing bowl, combine the candied quince and orange zest, dates, currants, orange and lemon zest, and all of the nuts. Sift together the flour, cocoa powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, coriander, pepper and cloves over the fruits and nuts. Mix well. Set aside.
3. In a deep, heavy saucepan, combine the honey and granulated sugar over medium-high heat. Stir gently with a wooden spoon from time to time to make sure that no sugar is sticking to the bottom of the pan. Bring to a boil and cook until the mixture registers 250 degrees on a thermometer, about 3 minutes. The mixture will be frothy and boiling rapidly.
4. Remove from the heat and immediately pour over the fruit-and-flour mixture in the bowl. Stir with a wooden spoon to incorporate the syrup thoroughly with the other ingredients. The mixture may seem dry at first, but it will come together once it is well mixed. (If you have rubber gloves, it is easier to mix with your hands than with a spoon.) Work quickly at this point; the longer the mixture sits, the firmer it becomes.
5. Transfer the mixture to the prepared springform pan and smooth the top with a rubber spatula dipped in water. Bake until the top is slightly puffed and looks like a brownie, about 1 hour. Cool in the pan on a wire rack for 30 minutes. Run a knife around the edge to loosen and turn out of the pan and cool completely.
6. With a fine-mesh sieve, sift the powdered sugar over the top, bottom and sides of the panforte. Lightly tap it over the counter to shake off excess sugar. It will keep, well wrapped, in a cool, dry place for up to 2 weeks, or indefinitely in the refrigerator. To serve, slice into quarter- to half-inch slices.