The panpepato, or pampapato, is a skullcap-shaped cake.
Dedicated to the Pope, created in 1580 from an idea of Alfonso II d’Este, the Lord of the city of Ferrara, and still produced both artisanally and commercially.
Made from a mixture of cake flour, honey, bitter cocoa, toasted almonds, a mixture of spices (the composition is variable, but cinnamon and cloves are ever present), diced candied citron, and orange or lemon grated zest.
In other parts of Emilia, you can also find pine nuts and wine in the dough.
A specialty of Ferrara, the cake is not dissimilar from other types of panpepato.
Other regional variations of this cake differ in the amount of pepper, the presence of candied fruit, or other ingredients. For example, in the Lazio region you can find some jam. Tuscan panforte also originated as panpepato and was called pane pazzo (crazy bread) because of the marked presence of pepper.
Molded into the appropriate shape and baked in the oven, it was allowed to rest in a cool, damp place for two to three weeks (according to tradition, it used to be put outside on windowsills and balconies to keep it moist), and finally coated with melted chocolate.
Ferrara panpepato is a recipe awarded the PGI mark.
This year’s Christmas season has inspired a different kind of cooking than I usually practice at this time.
Instead of the traditional pans of spiced and traditional Italian cookies, I baked in large quantities the sweet breads (pani dolci) that have scented the kitchens of courts and monasteries along the Via Emilia since the Middle Ages.
The smells of spices, chocolate, honey, and wine brightened the expectation of Christmas. Just as has happened with the cookies I have baked over the years. You know, it is not a ritual that defines the perfection of Christmas joy.
Rituals change, and others take shape along the way. What makes the mood festive is not what I do but the spirit that accompanies the things I do.
Chocolate panpepato of Ferrara, that is my version
What is special about it is the name that evokes a cake worthy of Popes or for Popes.
Around the 17th century, the nuns of the Corpus Christi Monastery in Ferrara, drawing inspiration from an earlier recipe reported in the book of the Renaissance cook who also worked at the Este Court, Cristoforo da Messisburgo, began making a spiced bread very similar to the present one.
The recipe underwent a revision after the arrival of cocoa in Europe, which made it similar to today’s cake, which includes a dark chocolate coating and cocoa in the dough.
Chocolate panpepato was sweet for courts and monasteries since the ingredients were expensive.
The panpepato, even today, is characterized by its cap shape reminiscent of a cardinal’s headdress.
When cut, the slice of panpepato is dense, smells of cocoa, and is embellished with dried and candied fruit.
Today, someone adds new ingredients such as yeast or raisins.
Some people prefer sugar to honey, and some replace water with wine.
After much experimentation, I can tell you that if you replace honey with sugar, you need to increase the liquid part, or the panpepato will have the somewhat hard consistency of chestnut cake. I prefer baking soda to the yeast because I need to add a bit of a boost. In addition to the water, I poured Marsala to give the cake a more rounded flavor. If you prefer, white wine works well too. Finally, I decided to replace the candied fruit with chocolate chips! It has been a good idea as the cake turned out to be a bomb.
The richness of the ingredients and the sumptuous complexity of the flavor have made chocolate panpepato so famous that it has been the Ferrara dessert of Christmas and the holidays for many centuries.
If you opt for a traditional version, with candied fruit instead of chocolate chips, substitute with equal amounts by cutting the candied fruit into small pieces. In that case, I suggest using candied citron.
Buona cucina, Monica
Christmas cake from Bologna
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- 1 mold 15 cm diameter
- 200 g of 00 flour
- 50 g of bitter cocoa powder
- 2 g of spices (cinnamon and clove powder)
- 1 pinch of ground black pepper
- 1 pinch of salt
- 5 g of baking soda
- 80 g of honey
- 100 ml of lukewarm water + 50 ml if flour needed it
- 30 ml of Marsala wine
- 100 g of almonds
- 50 g of chocolate drops or candied citron
- 70 g of dark chocolate for topping
- Preheat oven to 170 degrees (338F).
- Mix flour, baking soda, cocoa, spices, pepper, and salt in a bowl.
- Add honey, water, liqueur, and mix.
- Coarsely chop almonds. Add them and chocolate drops to the mixture and incorporate while stirring.
- Finish kneading with your hands.
- Mold it into the appropriate dome shape.
- Grease a pudding mold with olive oil, and arrange the panpepato in the mold.
- Bake in the hot oven for about 40 minutes.
- Remove from oven and let cool.
- Place the cake onto a cooling rack and let it cool down for 24 hours.
- Coat with melted chocolate at bain-marie.
- Let the frosting dry and wrap in foil until ready to cut.
- Chocolate panpepato is even better if you wait a few days to eat it. Once cut, store the cake in the pantry wrapped in plastic film. It will keep fresh for many days.