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January 2011

Tartine's Panforte with Candied Quince


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.

Candied quince
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.

Benne Wafers


I keep starting this post and deleting what I've written, because it just doesn't seem adequate. Or particularly verbal. But then I try to come up with something more...grown-up or legible, and fall short. Standards, you know? Sigh.

Do you want to see what I've deleted so far? Fine, here:

1. OMG.

2. Aaaaaah!

3. Best. Cookies. Ever.

4. Oh my goodness, you guys!

See what I mean? I think these cookies have possessed my brain or at least the parts of it that used to know how to write. But seriously, we need to talk about the cookies. Seriously. Pull up a chair!


A few weeks ago, I was sent a copy of the Gourmet Cookie Book. You know, the one that features the "single best [cookie] recipe" from 1941 to 2009, according to the editors at Gourmet (sigh). It's a funny little book, with very stark pictures of the cookies on black, white or red backgrounds, arranged almost architecturally. The most recent hyper-baroque style of Gourmet is nowhere to be found. So it's not the most sensual cookie cookbook ever designed or photographed, but it is...efficient. After all, each recipe gets a photo, which is rather nice. And the starkness of the photography means you get to really get in there and see the texture of a toasty almond or a spray of powdered sugar. Also, the editors did all the heavy lifting in culling out the very best recipes over the years, which, you know, is a big plus.

The headnotes, if you're into food history, and into Gourmet, which I am on both counts (double sigh), are lovely little reads. You go to the page about Norwegian Butter Cookies, also known as Spritz, and find out they were the favorites of a former food editor's pioneer mother. Or you turn to the Curled Wafer page and find out that there were only four cookie recipes published in Gourmet during all of 1963 - and none of them were American. Or you can go to the recipe for Scotch Oat Crunchies and read that those buttery discs sandwiching jam were cooked up during the war, when the staff at the magazine, along with housewives the nation over, I suppose, tried to come up with ways to make oatmeal palatable. Huh.

(My quibble with the book is that I wished the recipes had more consistent information about how long the cookies keep and how they should be stored. After all, most of us will be using this book around the holiday season, when shipping and storage times are crucial bits of information when planning what to include in a cookie tin.)

When I first leafed through the book, I made a list of the cookies that I wanted to make:

1. Speculaas
2. Bizcochitos
3. Glazed Pain D'Epice Cookies
4. Cottage Cheese Cookies
5. Basler Brunsli

Now this didn't seem like a very long list. After all, I was expecting to dogear half the book. That's disappointing, I thought. But that's how it goes with cookbooks sometimes. And besides, wasn't I the person saying just the other day that if you find one good recipe in a cookbook, it's worth the price of the book? So I went and made some cookies. First, the Cottage Cheese Cookies, which are tender, cakey little things with agreeably crispy edges and a fine, plain flavor. Max popped one in his mouth and commandeered the entire tray for the rest of the week. Then I made the Speculaas, which were a dream to make - the softest, most aromatic dough just needed to be rolled out into a rectangle and cut into little squares or rectangles before being topped with slivered almonds and baked. The cookies were fabulous. Buttery, crunchy, full of Christmassy flavor, just like those great little Biscoff cookies you get on airplanes, only better. (These would be great crushed into a pie crust, too, by the way.) This time, I was the one who hoarded them.


And then I started re-reading the book. I'd ignored some recipes on the first go-around, but now I couldn't them get out of my head. Like the Gianduia Brownies, which I'm thinking will be a hit at our Bavarian Christmas this year. Or the Walnut Acorn Cookies, just because they combine chopped walnuts and butter and melted chocolate to what looks like splendid effect. Or the Old-Fashioned Christmas Butter Cookies, which sound like such a snooze, but upon reading the headnote ("what you end up with are cookies that are incredibly crisp and so flaky they almost seem to float away") you realize you can't really live much more than a few hours longer without trying them.

People, I am up to my eyeballs in cookies this year. It's December 2nd and I've already made six, no, seven different ones. By any normal stretch of the imagination, one look at a cookie book should have me shrinking away in horror. And yet, I can't seem to keep away. They keep sucking me in, these Fig Cookies, Jan Hagels, and, oh, the mighty Benne Wafer.

Or, lo! The Mighty Benne Wafer!


So, now we're back where we started, with me apparently struck dumb or incapable of putting into lyrical type just how good these cookies are.

SO. GOOD. Is that better? I'm sorry.

Let me tell you a little bit about them, maybe that will help. First of all, you need hardly anything to make them. An egg, a pat of butter, two spoons of flour - do you see where this is going? If you're the kind of person who stocks sesame seeds in her house, you can make these cookies...whenever you want! (Every day, you'll want to do them every day, believe me.) You cream some brown sugar and that little nugget of butter together, though creaming is not exactly what happens, since there's so little butter to the amount of sugar. Beat until they're combined and no longer lumpy and the sugar is fluffy and a little lighter than before. Then beat in the egg, some vanilla, the flour and half a cup of sesame seeds. And a little pinch of salt! That is it. What you're left with is what looks like the measliest amount of cookie batter ever. It should be loose and a little drippy, but only barely.


You drop little rounds of the khaki-colored stuff onto a parchment-lined baking sheet and then, using a knife that you repeatedly dip in ice water, flatten them out a bit. Don't do what I did on the first round and make the dough drops too close - you'll end up with large rectangular Benne Wafers. These go into the oven for six minutes. Six! That's it. Any more and you'll have charred edges, any less and they'll still be a bit too chewy. I like to pull the parchment paper off the sheet pan directly onto the cooling rack. If you have just a little bit of patience, then, you'll be able to gently tug the cookies right off the paper. They set up into these caramelly, crispy wonders - pop one in your mouth and you'll wonder how you ever lived all these years without eating a single Benne Wafer before.

I was planning on including these in my cookie boxes for friends, but after I brought Max one to try and we stood there looking at each other, chewing dumbly in stupefaction, he begged me not to let them leave the house. "But, but, think of the Christmas spirit!" I protested weakly.

I think I'm making another batch.


In the end, did I actually manage to tell you just how insanely good these cookies are? They are delicate and taste like caramel. They have this alluring crunch both from their crispy edges and the toasted sesame seeds. You can make them when you have barely anything in the house. And you could eat, I don't know, ten of them in mere seconds. (Even though there are currently fresh drifts of ankle-deep snow on my balcony, right at this very moment, I keep having visions of them stuck into a scoop of ice cream at a summer dinner party, too.) They are so good they've sort of instantly become my favorite cookie. Superlatives can be so annoying, I know. But I just can't help it. The might Benne Wafer is here to stay!

Benne Wafers
Makes about 4 dozen
Note: Some people reported having issues with the texture of their cookies; please remember that the butter you use must not be warm or room temperature, but cool to the touch and still quite firm before you begin to cream it with the sugar. Here's an article on butter in baking for your reading pleasure.)

1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cool but not cold
1 cup light brown sugar
1 egg
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup sesame seeds

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C).

2. Cream together the butter and sugar until light and well-combined. Add the egg and beat until combined. Add the flour, salt, vanilla extract and sesame seeds. Mix until all the ingredients are combined.

3. Drop small spoons of dough onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Flatten the wafers with a knife dipped in ice water.

4. Bake for 6 minutes. The cookies should be a golden brown with deeper golden edges. Pull the parchment paper off the sheet pan onto a cooling rack. After about 5 to 8  minutes, gently pull the cooled cookies off the parchment. Reuse the parchment for the next batch.

5. Cool completely and store in a tin for up to 2 weeks.