A certain appeal

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I have a thing about orange peel. I’m also extremely fond of the fruit within: in segments just so, with fennel and black olives, squeezed rudely (no smooth and filtered juice for me thank you very much.) But it’s the peel – especially of Sicilian navel oranges -  rugged matte-orange peel with deep pores, pith as-thick-as-your-thumb and the most exquisite heady scent that makes me hum.

I grate orange zest – intensely aromatic and oily – into cakes, biscuits, pastry, salads and soups. I shave orange curls into cocktails, tea and sticky sauces. I chew the half-moon in my Campari and relish the curious dry, bitter, oily gasp that fills my mouth. My Sevile orange marmalade is as chunky as my nephew’s thighs and orange peel dangles in an ungainly manner from radiators so rooms are filled with citrus scent. And then there is candied orange peel.

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I am extraordinarily fond of candied fruit per se. I always have been: my young eyes finding the suspiciously red cherry on top much more exciting than the tart or biscuit below, my fat little fingers picking out the opaque orange cubes from whatever they were suspended in. While other children clambered up onto kitchen counters in search of biscuits, I was rummaging in the baking drawer and prising open squat tubs of glacè cherries, angelica and peel bound for mincemeat. I was probably about 12 when my dad bought my mum a tray of Italian candied fruits: pears, oranges, cherries, figs and plums. A glorious tray of whole fruits that had been soaked in syrup until their colour and curves were perfectly preserved in an opaque sugar gown. Sweet, firm and just exquisite.

But I never even considered making candied fruit or peel. I imagined it involved complicated and elaborate procedures, that it was fiendishly difficult and bound to end in disaster. Then I read Molly’s post. A post about – amongst other nice things – making candied orange peel. A post which charmed me (Molly always does) enlightened me and started what was to escalate into a week of simmering syrup. To begin I made two batches of Molly’s thick and thin candied peel: stout match sticks and slim curls which you roll in sugar. Then feeling bold and bolstered by my success I adapted her recipe in order to make larger pieces of candied peel that I didn’t roll in sugar.

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I’m bound to make this sound complicated and pernickerty. It isn’t. A flurry of activity demanding your full attention is necessary to get started, but then it’s all about the long, seductive simmer that requires nothing more than a curious prod and satisfied nod every now and then.

You cut both ends from each orange (6 is a good number and make sure they’re unwaxed) and then score the fruit with a sharp knife so you can ease away four arcs of peel. Now you need to blanch the peel three times: that is put it in a pan, cover it with cold water and bring to the boil, drain, recover the peel with fresh cold water, bring to the boil again, drain, recover and reboil. Did that make sense? I hope so.

Having blanched the peel, you need to simmer it in simple syrup (2 cups of water and two cups of fine sugar) until the arcs are tender and translucent. Tentative touch and taste are the best gauge -  trust yourself, you are right. Mine took an hour and 45 minutes. Once your orange arcs are candied, you use a slotted spoon to scoop them from the amber liquid and onto a wire tray set on baking parchment. You leave them to dry for a day and a half by which point they are no longer wet (but still a little bit tacky) and shine like polished leather. Store them in a screw top jar. Don’t forget to pour the amber cooking syrup into a bottle and keep it in the fridge, It’s good on greek yogurt and glorious poured over sliced oranges, slivers of dates and mascarpone (thank you Frances and thank you too for your delightful drawings, they are sheer joy in a world of too many photos)

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Of course you can eat the peel just so. I do. It’s heady stuff, the absolute essence of orange really: sweet, fragrant, spicy, oily and acerbic. Not for the citrus faint hearted. It’s good with an espresso and a square of lindt. Or with tea, Darjeeling is particulary nice. You can dip the ends of your fat, fragrant match sticks in melted dark chocolate to make scorzette d’arancia candite al cioccolato (or Orangettes). Alternatively you could (and you should) make possibly my favourite christmas treat – which is saying something considering the throng of heavily fruited cakes, suet-laced puddings, Panetone, profusion of marzipan and gaggle of spiced delights that clammer for attention during my schizophrenic AngloItalian festivities – Panforte di Siena.

Panforte di Siena is a flat, rich, boldly spiced cake, dense with toasted nuts and candied fruit peel that dates back to Medieval times. Don’t let its appearance deceive! A dark, shadowy, curiously bumpy appearance barely concealed by a blizzard of icing sugar, panforte is a most delicious thing. I’ve described it as a cake! It’s actually more like soft, chewy, heavily spiced nougat (with a whisper of cake) that’s crowded with toasted almonds, hazelnuts and masses and masses of candied fruit.

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It is pleasingly (ridiculously) straightforward to make. You toast the nuts until they are fragrant and (just) golden. You need 300g for the panforte so I suggest you toast at least 500 g so you have some for with an aperitivo. Prosecco please. Then you chop the nuts roughly (very roughly they can almost be whole) and small dice the candied peel. In a large bowl you mix together the flour, cocoa, spices – nutmeg, ground cloves, black pepper and cinnamon – nuts and candied fruit. You note your kitchen smells like Christmas. Hum (bug.)

Now you make a syrup of sugar and honey. You can get involved with thermometers here! Or you can – like me – choose to follow a recipe that simply tells you to warm the sugar and honey gently until they’ve dissolved into a syrup. Now working quickly, you pour the syrup onto the dry ingredients and stir until everything comes together into a sticky mass. Now using a spoon and your hands, you press the mixture down into a shallow tin you have lined with rice paper or wafers. You bake your panforte for 30 minutes. Once it is cool you drench it with icing sugar.

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For a woman like me, a woman with a weakness for toasted nuts, candied peel, heavily spiced confections and medieval undertones, this is a pretty stupendous slice. Gillian Riley notes that in the 1500s panforte (which literally translated means strong bread) with its strengthening sweetness and stimulating spiciness was considered an ideal gift for women after childbirth. Now I know it’s been more than a year, but I’m still in need of strengthening sweetness and stimulating spiciness. Hum.

Panforte di Siena

Adapted from Sapori d’Italia and Le ricette Regionali Italiane

  • 150 g peeled almonds
  • 150 g peeled hazelnuts
  • 300 g best quality candied fruit peel (orange, cedro, melon, lemon)
  • 150 g honey
  • 150 g sugar
  • 1 heaped tbsp cocoa powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 /4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/ 2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 /4 teaspoon of black pepper (optional)
  • 100 g plain flour
  • icing sugar to dust
  • rice paper wafers /rice paper or baking parchment

Preheat the oven to 160° and line a 9″ by 2″ (23 cm by 5 cm) cake tin with rice paper or baking parchment

Spread the nuts on a baking tray and then toast then in the oven until they are lightly golden and fragrant. Chop the nuts very coarsely (very roughly they can almost be whole). Small dice the candied peel.

In a bowl mix together the cocoa, spices and flour. Add the nuts and diced peel. Stir.

In a heavy bottomed pot over a low flame warm the honey and sugar stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Raise the heat and cook the mixture until is just starting to bubble at the edges.

Quickly pour the sugar and honey syrup into the other ingredients and stir until they come together into a sticky mass. Working swiftly scrape the mixture into the lined tin then use your hands to press the mixture evenly down.

Bake for 30 minutes. Allow the panforte to cool in the tin, then remove it carefully and dust really generously with icing sugar. Panforte keeps brilliantly for days. It keeps best (and for weeks) if it is covered or in an airtight container in a cool, dark place.

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53 Comments

Filed under almonds, cakes and baking, christmas, hazelnuts, preserves and conserves, rachel eats Italy, Rachel's Diary, recipes, spiced cakes

53 responses to “A certain appeal

  1. Kay

    It has been over a year for me, as well, and I can tell you that “strengthening sweetness and stimulating spiciness” sounds exactly like what I need. I was just chastising my husband for throwing away his tangerine peels this morning, as candied fruit was also calling my name. Thank you, I’d love to try my hand at making a Panefort. It just looks so…um, purposeful(?) somehow (or maybe it is just your lovely description that makes me feel as though it is!)

    • rachel

      I love the sound of candied tangerine peel! seeing as I’m on a roll, I might just try. I think at just over a year (the wobbling/walking/pulling/poking stage) we both need as much strengthening sweetness and stimulating spiciness as we can get.

  2. sue

    this might be the very thing that finally puts me in the holiday spirit! thank you so much for posting……..

  3. Jody and I were just talking about panforte this morning! Americans tend to publicly express great disdain for anything seemingly related to fruitcake while secretly consuming tons of the toxic-green-cherry-laden stuff. But who in their right mind would reject a panforte? It looks and sounds lovely. Thanks for the heads up about candied orange peel–I may take you up on it. Merry Christmas! Ken

    • rachel

      Merry christmas to you both too (may it be filled with excellent food – I’m sure it will.) I find the idea of rejecting fruitcake confusing but at least it means more for me.

  4. First thing I’ve read that makes me genuinely YEARN for Christmas, and I’m not even a christian! Shows how important food is! My best friend makes panforte every year to distribute, but this year I’ll give it a go myself.

    • rachel

      The smell of candied oranges gave me the first (little) nudge towards something festive. I think your friend and I would get on.

  5. The candeed peel looks lovely. Have actually always hated the stuff till recently when i discovered the home made version which is ridiculously lovely! The cake looks like perfect way to christmas too… Nutty, fruity yum. Will be making this. Thanks for the inspiration..

    • rachel

      yum and hum too. Bought candied peel and homemade are chalk (and cheap chalk at that) and cheese (classy cheese). I am still gasping at how blooming easy it was to make!

  6. My mouth is watering just thinking about candied orange and pouring the “amber cooking syrup” over a bowl of yogurt.The panforte sounds delicious too.

    • rachel

      Hi Jess – it is. Coming back to read about the Irish christmas cake again, I adore fruit laden, marzipan covered christmas delights..

  7. Excellent. Might have to try that. Would be a great addition to homemade mincemeat too. And I’ve been thinking about a panforte, so thanks for that recipe too. (I must say though: glace cherries, ugh. They’re a total abomination!)

    • rachel

      What can I say Dan, I was six, I thought glacè cherries were absolutely delicious. I prefer the superior ones these days but will stilll pick the very red cherry off a bakewell tart and think hum – nostalgia food. Awaiting my next bread lesson!

  8. laura

    You are simply amazing … and amazingly purpose-full!

  9. sarah

    Ditto Laura’s comments, a lovely inbox surprise this morning. Could you tell me more on the two books you mentioned…I cannot find them in english. Do you know if they are available?

  10. I thought long about whether I should comment or not as one of the few things on the face of the earth that I really don’t like is candied fruit, especially orange and lemon peel. I am the gal who does not eat panettone, panforte, Stollen or Christmas pudding and when I get served some (seeing that I do live in Italy and that half my family is German) I pick out anything candied and sometimes even the raisins (as much as I like them on their own as a snack). The reason I decided to comment in the end (and I know you think that after this confession we can never be friends) is that your writing made those peels and hidden treasures in Medieval desserts and the process of making them sound so enticing that I am almost tempted to taste them again and even give them a try at home!

    • rachel

      I love that you commented and i think it is brilliant (and slightly comical) that you an Italian/german with all the festive candied fruit treats don’t like the stuff. I actually know more italians that hate candied fruit than like it! Wishing you a very happy and candied fruit free festive time x

  11. I think I want to say “Lo voglio fare” or “Voglio farlo”. I want to make it. I was just saying to R the other day how I wished to make orangettes, but now I wish to buy the candied fruit from our local Italian shop and make Panforte. I would like to flip through Che verso fai? while it is baking.

  12. MB@YarnUiphoneApp

    Gosh, the talk of an orange fragrance permeating the house has me enthralled and makes me want to go to the nearest store for unwaxed oranges. Speaking of…I have a can of oranges for marmalade…It just needs to be cooked up with sugar on the stove. I’m afraid I’ll make a burnt mess, like last time. But orange marmalade, cream cheese and a bagel are to die for!!!

  13. Such a flatterer! I shall be bookmarking this for that magical far-off New Year when I will have simmering time.

    Question: have you ever tried with grapefruit peel? Because I love love love the fruit itself, but have a feeling the peel is less strong than orange…

    • rachel

      Flattery well deserved. I haven’t! But I’ve bought candied grapefruit peel (really good quality stuff) and it was delish x

  14. Oh my goodness. What a glorious post! (Long time reader, first time commenter: hi!).

    Loved the imagery and rhythm of “rudely squeezed”, “curious prod, satisfied nod”, “strengthening sweetness and stimulating spiciness.”

    I’m in the same category as you—weakness for toasted nuts, heavily spiced goodies and the slightly mysterious beckon of medieval things. So this (plus being bombarded with Sicilian oranges from my Sicilian husband) is just perfect for me (okay, us).

    Thank you for sharing!

    • rachel

      ……the slightly mysterious beckon of medieval things – yes, perfectly put. If you can get Sicilian oranges (and it sounds like you can) your peel will be superlative.

  15. Ann

    Oh, I thought I didn’t like candied orange peel, but this post has forced me to reconsider. I long to sink my teeth into a sticky, chewy, spicy slice of panforte. Hum? Yum.

    • rachel

      I actually know more people who loathe than like the stuff. I am happy to help those who don’t out. Hum, ho ho and a happy time to you Ann

  16. wow, I feel like I can smell those spices from here. Today is a cool grey day after a month or two of heat and sunshine and this recipe looks perfect! I think the peel might be a perfect addition to christmas spice cookies as well

    • rachel

      Oh for days of heat and sunshine. Actually it is pretty sunny in Rome today but properly cold (and windy by the look of the tree outside my window.) I think candied orange peel would be fantastic in cookies – please let me know if you try and the recipe Rx

  17. I can almost smell the panforte baking–ahh–I must try this. Not so sure about the candied peel, though.

    • rachel

      The warm, spicy fragrance is pretty damn good. Good enough to make an old humbug like me feel (mildly)festive. ‘Not sure’ because you don’t like it? Or ‘not sure’ about all that boiling syrup? (it is so easy even an old humbug like me can do it.) x

  18. I can also recommend using a splash of the orangey syrup as a base for a Christmas cocktail – syrup, gin, prosecco and pomegranate seeds. We had a few last night (using syrup made by a friend) and they are a little too easy to drink…

  19. So beautifully written, Rachel. I too, wanted to make candied orange peels after reading Molly’s post, but you beat me to it! Looks easy and delicious… Also: you solved my dinner party conundrum in your second sentence- I was wondering what to serve with two kinds of fish carpaccio, and a platter of segmented oranges with fennel and black olives (and maybe some red onion and mint leaves) sounds perfect! Thanks ;)

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  21. We just found an Italian butcher near us selling Umbrian-style liver sausage and cooked it last night. It was incredibly highly perfumed with bitter orange, almost to the point of being hard to eat (the combination with pigs liver making it an altogether ferocious prospect). If i’m not mistaken, panforte is another of these Renaissance recipes, full of preserved fruits and the spices Marco Polo popularized. It is, however, very enjoyable. Bravo for home-making your peel as part of the entire confection even though you can buy panforte so easily. Here, it’s wildly expensive, so we’d have to homemake it. Happily, we now have a recipe! Buon natale.

    • rachel

      It is a Renaissance recipes, often made my nuns I think (nuns and priests have the right idea, what with all the brewing, liquoring, jamming and sweet treating) Buon natale anche a voi xxx

  22. As I sit reading your beautiful post I am also preparing ingredients to make Polenta Shortbread cookies with……..orange peel! Not candied, but cut into little pieces and added to the dough. Your post is lovely as always and inspiring and makes my morning just a bit more Holiday-like than it already was. Happy Holidays to you.

    • rachel

      I love the sound of polenta cookies (have you posted a recipe? – coming over to check). Thank you and Happy holidays to you too Teresa x

  23. Hi Rach, I am playing catch-up these holidays with reading and writing, and if I were still with my daughter, I’d bake this panforte for her straightaway. We have staunch grapefruit lovers in our household—I’m thinking that would be the peel for me to candy. Thank you for the inspiration.
    Love the overhead shot of white plates on red table.
    love and best wishes in the new year to you and Luca!
    Nancy

  24. laura

    Happy New Year, Rachel! May it be good to you and Luca and all your loved ones… good health, happy surprises and lots and lots of laughter.

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