Panpepato means ‘peppered bread’ - here we are again in the quicksand territory of when is bread a cake: clearly the Italians contribute to the dispute. It is a weird and wonderful Christmas bake originating from Siena in central Italy, in the region of Tuscany.
What is panpepato?
Panpepato is a type of panforte, a classic Italian biscuit studded with dried fruit and nuts. Though in truth it should be described as fruit and nut mass studded with a little biscuit dough – to say it’s rich is an understatement.
It is very traditional in the province of Siena and used to be baked for Christmas in every family according to their own recipe. Perhaps that is the reason the recipes around are so wildly different: the amounts inconsistent, the chocolate content varied, the finishing touch sometimes chocolate, sometimes icing sugar.
I trawled through quite a few recipes, mostly Italian (though that is not necessarily a guarantee of success: I wouldn’t trust me to make the best pierogis!) and what emerged is below. Some recipes skip the chocolate from the ingredients of the cake and advise just to coat the baked confection in melted chocolate.
I liked the ones that included dark chocolate chunks in the mix which subsequently is melted and gelled together with hot honey. Plus some cocoa – after all it is supposed to be ‘peppered’, a dark and spicy thing.
The shape and texture differ too, wherever you look: sometimes panpepato is baked in a tin, thinly pressed and packed then cut into long fingers. Other authors instruct to shape loaves, flatter or fatter. The surface is bumpy, like in mine, if the proportion of dough to fruit and nuts is lower. When the honey and flour dough constitute a proper cake, only studded with fruit and nuts – it’s smoother. None of the ways is the only right one, none of them is wrong.
It is a delicious thing and makes a nice Christmas gift as it lasts forever.
How to make panpepato?
It could not be easier. Even the amounts are for you to decide to a certain extent: more fruit? more nuts? more chocolate or more cake dough – it will all impact on the outcome but successful nevertheless, unless you go widely off the mark.
Soaking the raisins is a must, in Vin Santo or any dessert wine (some recipes advise to use dry red wine so looks like anything goes). Toasting the nuts is also obligatory, to enhance the flavours and dry them a little.
Then the lovely melange is mixed in a bowl, while you warm up the honey with some raisin soaking liquor. The hot honey melts the chocolate and all the nuts, raisins, candied fruit and crushed peppercorns are added to the dark chocolate lava.
What follows is very messy but awfully satisfying: mixing in the flour with spices and cocoa powder, then shaping loaves with your hands.
How long does panpepato bake?
It doesn’t bake long at all, about 20 minutes – and there’s nothing to look out for because the appearance of the bumpy black loaves doesn’t at all change.
They need to cool completely before being showered with icing sugar – or coated with more chocolate if that should be the preference.
As I said, it keeps fantastically well so you can bake your panpepato weeks ahead to gift it to friends on Christmas Day.