We almost skipped our holiday baking this year. Work and kids’ activities have filled our evenings, and we’ve kept so busy on weekends in December that there simply hasn’t been time. We thought about just taking a year off – after all, there will be no shortage of sweets and desserts on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day when we are together with Cara’s family. However, tradition prevailed, and this weekend we made small batches of our standby Italian Christmas baked goods: mostaccioli, tozzetti, salame al cioccolato, and panpepato.
We’re glad we did. There is nothing better than once a year filling the house with the warm and delicious smells of Christmas in Italy. Nuts, chocolate and dried fruit take center stage in recipes that have deep regional roots. Our tozzetti, for example, are made in the traditional method of the Castelli Romani, with hazelnuts, almonds and brandy or Amaretto di Saronno. As you move north towards Umbria, you may find fennel added, and as you approach Tuscany their name changes to cantucci.
Likewise, we make our panpepato the way Stefano’s mom does, with nuts, chocolate, candied orange peel, black pepper to give it some heat, and honey and flour to hold it all together. This is how it is made in the region of Lazio, where Rome is located. Interestingly, each of Stefano’s aunts prepares it slightly differently, perhaps because they all come from neighboring, but different, small towns in the Roman countryside. Some add rehydrated sultanas or raisins, others include other candied fruits, and some even add cinnamon. They are all delicious, though.
Christmas would not be the same without the richness of nuts and chocolate, faint aroma of citrus from the orange peel, sweetness from the honey, and the surprising bite of black pepper in panpepato.
You will need a food scale
150 grams of hazelnuts
150 grams of sliced almonds
150 grams of walnuts
150 grams of pine nuts
150 grams of candied orange peel
150-200 grams (one bag) high quality dark chocolate chips
350 grams of honey
350 grams of flour
Black pepper to taste (we use about 1 dozen turns of freshly ground pepper)
Olive oil for handling
Grind the walnuts and hazelnuts roughly in a food processor. Spread all of the nuts onto baking trays lined with parchment paper, and toast in the oven at 350° F (180° C) for about 10 minutes, or until they are golden brown. They will smell delicious when they are ready, so let your sense of scent guide you. Let them cool slightly.
Mix all of the ingredients together inside a large mixing bowl using a wooden spoon until the flour is absorbed and the mixture is sticky. Apply a small amount of olive oil on your hands to help with handling the mixture. Using your hands, form 4 or 5 small panpepato mounds, and place them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
Bake at 350° F (180° C) for approximately 20-30 minutes, or until the outsides are toasted. You may wish to lower the baking rack to prevent the tops from browning too quickly. Allow to cool completely, before slicing and serving. You can wrap a cooled, whole panpepato and store in the refrigerator or even freeze, if you wish.