One of the most famous products of the Sienese gastronomy is Panforte cake. Its history dates back to medieval times when the product was called (1205) by the name of Panpepato, in reference to the abundant presence of pepper and other spices in its dough. On that occasion the cake is said to have been a gift that servants and settlers were forced to bring to the nuns of the Abbey of Montecelso in Siena.
Over time Panforte became a refined product offered by aristocrats, the very rich and the clergy on important occasions, such as Christmas. The cake was made by spice sellers, who were the pharmacists of the day and it contained ingredients like orange, citrus, melon, almonds and expensive spices. Panforte was held in high regard not only as a food but also as a cure by virtue of the presence of spices in its dough.
Thanks to the Via Francigena the product also spread outside the territory of Siena. The recipe for panpepato remained unaltered over the centuries until 1879, the year when Queen Margherita of Savoy visited Siena. In honour of her visit, a local spice seller made a version of the cake without melon and with a layer of vanilla-flavoured sugar on top instead of black pepper. The people of Siena gave this 'white' version of panforte to Queen Margherita and called it 'Panforte Margherita' in her honour. This more delicate version is the one still sold today. The consistency is soft, the flavor is sweet, with an aftertaste of candied fruit, almonds and a hint of spice. In 2014 Panforte from Siena obtained the PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) European designation of quality label.
In Siena many families still prepare it at home, thus it's possible to still find many different recipes for homemade panforte and even if the list of ingredients is long the preparation method is quite simple. Here is Alice del Re recipe from Pane, libri e nuvole food blog:
Line a round baking tray with removable bottom (22 cm/9inches diameter) with the host
Toast the almonds in the oven at 200°C/400°F for 5-6 minutes. Chop them roughly with a knife.
Mix only 1 teaspoon of cinnamon with all the spices except for cocoa powder. Add about half of the mixture to the almonds and keep aside the rest. Chop candied fruits in small dices.
In a saucepan over low fire heat sugar and honey until they are liquid. You reach the right point of cooking when by picking a small amount of the mixture with a toothpick and passing it under cold water, a solid sphere forms. This process should take roughly 15 minutes.
Turn off the fire and pour in the saucepan the almonds, the candied fruit and the flour, sieved. Mix quickly and pour the mixture in the baking tray, flattening with the back of a damp spoon.
Add cocoa and 1 tablespoon of sugar to the spices and sprinkle everything over the surface using a sieve. Bake at 150°C/300°F for 30 minutes. Once cooled, remove from the baking tray and sprinkle with sugar.