Most people who visit Siena, Italy, load their suitcases with bottles of the local Chianti or liters of fruity Tuscan olive oil. They come home wearing souvenir t-shirts adorned with pictures of the Palio, a medieval-style horse race that runs through the town's main square. Not me. All three times I left those city walls, my bags were packed to the brim with Panforte, a dense, spiced fruit and nut cake.
Panforte is not for everyone. Made improperly, a slice of this cake is harder than a Jawbreaker. Even at its best, Panforte is a toothsome, slightly sticky sweet. But as a devotee of dried fruit and nuts, I adore the intense fig flavor and the crunch of hazelnuts and almonds.
I love that this cake has roots in the medieval. Legend says that Crusaders toted this bread with them en route to the Holy Land (not surprising given that this cake stays good forever.) The spices are reminiscent of the Spice Route: Nutmeg, cinnamon, coriander, and cloves give the cake a warm sweetness. Cocoa powder and black pepper impart a unique earthiness and depth. Finally, honey rounds out the sweetness while orange zest lifts the flavor.
A slice of Panforte makes a great energizing breakfast—a tasty alternative to a granola bar. In the morning, I'll pack a slice in plastic wrap and throw it in my bag— then I have a breakfast bar that's full of fiber and nutrients and won't get stale on the way to work.