Home Cooking > The Keeping Cakes of Christmas

Each October 12, my baking date with Christmas begins. As a child, I remember that Columbus Day signaled the start of the holiday baking season for my mother and grandmother. They worked tirelessly to ready and stock the kitchen with fifty-pound bags of Canadian flour, stacks of fresh yeast cakes, gleaming tins full of candied fruits, slabs of dark chocolate, bags of whole nuts and countless fresh eggs from the “chicken man”—all in preparation for the cakes, breads, rolls and cookies that would be given as holiday gifts.

It did help that, at one end of our cavernous kitchen, my mother had a huge Ben Hur freezer to store fi nished goods until they were needed. Doing most of the baking ahead of time ensured that there would be plenty of variety and a lot less stress in the months to come.

It is amusing to me that I have continued this tradition over the years—so much so that my freezer has been known to harbor boxes of Christmas cookies into July!

My list for cakes includes good keepers such as delicate pandorato, the wonderful star-shaped cake from Verona, Italy; panforte, the exquisite flat, dense, dark and spicy fruitcake from Siena in Tuscany; and panettone, the traditional tall bread (almost-cake) of Milan that I serve for breakfast on Christmas morning or fi ll with ice cream for a lavish dessert.

Over time, I have kept true to tradition by not tinkering with the ingredients, ensuring that future generations will have something original to hang on to.

So come October 12 or thereabouts, why not start a tradition of your own and make these cakes to keep or to give?

Mary Ann Esposito’s Christmas Cake Recipes

Panforte di Siena (Siena’s Spicy Fruitcake) Serves 10 -12

Panforte is a flat, dense fruitcake that is a specialty of the city of Siena in Tuscany, and is enjoyed year-round but is especially welcome during the holidays. Some say it has a history that goes back to the Renaissance when heavy, dense cakes and breads were flavored with spices of ginger, cinnamon and cloves. Maybe this is where it derived the name panforte, which means strong bread, presumably because of its spicy flavor and the fact that it can be preserved for a long time. It is best enjoyed cut into thin slices.

-1 cup skinned hazelnuts
-Butter, for greasing the pan
-½ cup candied orange peel, finely chopped
-1/3 cup candied lemon peel, finely chopped
-½ cup plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
-¼ cup baking cocoa
-1 teaspoon ground cinnamon ½ teaspoon ground cloves
-½ teaspoon white pepper
-¼ teaspoon mace or ground nutmeg
-¼ teaspoon allspice
-½ cup sugar
-½ cup honey
-Confectioners’ sugar for sprinkling

1. Preheat the oven to 400°F. Toast the hazelnuts on a baking sheet in the oven for 5-8 minutes. Remove and let cool. Reduce the oven temperature to 325°F.
2. Grease an 8- or 9-inch pie or cake pan with butter. Line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper and grease the paper.
3. Chop the hazelnuts coarsely. Put them in a bowl, stir in the candied peels, flour, cocoa and spices, and mix well. Set aside.
4. In a saucepan, combine the sugar and honey, and bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Use a candy thermometer and cook the mixture, stirring constantly, until it reaches the soft ball stage (235°F).
5. Add the sugar syrup to the flour and nut mixture, and stir to mix well. Pour into a pan and, with wet hands, smooth the top.
6. Bake for 30-35 minutes or until firm to the touch and a cake tester inserted in the middle comes out clean. Let cake cool for 10-15 minutes, and then loosen its sides with a knife. Carefully turn the cake out onto a cooling rack, and remove and discard the parchment paper. Invert the cake onto another rack and cool completely.
7. Sprinkle the cake liberally with confectioners’ sugar and cut into thin wedges to serve.

To freeze: Wrap well in freezer wrap and then in a sheet of aluminum foil. Place the cake in a large food-storage bag and freeze for up to 3 months. This cake can also be stored for a month in an airtight tin. Bring to room temperature to serve and cut into thin slices.

To give as a gift: Wrap in Florentine paper or gold foil, and tie with a silver ribbon. Attach the recipe on a nice recipe card.
Recipe from Celebrations Italian Style by Mary Ann Esposito.