Chocolate Christmas Spice Cake (Pampepato)

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Crumbly but wonderfully moist, this cake has enough surprises of fruity chocolate, nuts and spice to set it far apart from ordinary Christmas fruit cakes. Taste it at its mellow best by baking the Pampepato a week or more before serving. One loaf could become a holiday house gift, while the other is kept for celebrating Christmas with the family.

Pampepato was created at the Monastery of Corpus Domini during the 15th century. A century later the monastery achieved further distinction by becoming the burial place of one of Ferrara's most illustrious duchesses, Lucrezia Borgia d'Este. Some believe the cake's original name was pan del pape, or bread of the pope, while others say it was pan pepato, or peppered bread.

Pampepato was first cloaked in chocolate in the late 19th century. The crisp coating not only singles out Pampepato from the Christmas cakes of Emilia and Romagna, but also seals the cake, keeping it moist through the entire holiday season. Ferrarese Riccardo Rimondi shared this recipe with me. He tells of Christmas in Ferrara when every pasticceria makes its own Pampepato, packing it in golden cellophane or gilded boxes. On Christmas Eve, every shop has platters of sliced Pampepato. Shoppers are invited to share the Christmas tradition as they collect the last-minute supplies for the next two days of feasting.

Wine: Drink Malvasia dei Lipari from Sicily, or sip a Vin Santo of Tuscany.

Cook's Notes: Ground chocolate: Sold in boxes like cocoa, ground chocolate is sweetened and contains more cocoa butter than cocoa does.

Ingredients

Cake:

  • 1 1/2 cups (6 ounces) cake flour
  • 1 1/2 cups (6 ounces) all-purpose unbleached flour (organic, stone-ground preferred)
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 6 tablespoons (2.5 ounces) candied citron, cut into very fine dice
  • 3/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons (5 ounces) candied orange rind, cut into very fine dice
  • 2 small dried figs, finely minced
  • 1 3/4 cups (7 ounces) whole blanched almonds, toasted and coarsely chopped
  • 1 cup plus 3 tablespoons water
  • 1 1/2 cups (10 1/2 ounces) sugar
  • 1/4 cup (13/4 ounces) ground sweet chocolate (see Note)
  • 1 cup (2 1/2 ounces) cocoa (not Dutch process)
  • Generous 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
  • Generous pinch freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Icing:

  • 8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, melted
Instructions

Working Ahead: Pampepato must be made at least 12 hours in advance. Ideally it should ripen 3 to 4 days. Keep tightly wrapped at room temperature. It freezes very nicely (before cloaking in chocolate).

Making the Cakes: Butter and flour a cookie sheet. Preheat the oven to 300°F. In a large shallow bowl, thoroughly mix the flours, baking powder, baking soda, candied fruits, figs, and nuts. In a small saucepan set over medium heat blend the water, sugar, ground chocolate, and cocoa to a cream-like consistency. Do not let it boil. Cool about 15 minutes and stir in the spices.

Make a well in the dry ingredients, filling it with the chocolate mixture. Stir with a wooden spoon to combine everything, taking care not to overmix. It will be a very sticky dough. Use a rubber spatula to make two round mounds of the dough on the cookie sheet, spacing them about 3 inches apart. Each should be no more than 6 to 7 inches in diameter. Smooth the mounds.

Baking, Mellowing, and Icing: Bake the cakes 1 hour and 25 minutes, or until a tester inserted in center of one comes out clean. Cool to room temperature on the sheet. Then wrap the two cakes in plastic wrap and let them ripen at room temperature 12 hours to 4 days.

Lay out a sheet paper towels under a cake rack. Set the cakes upside down on a rack and spread an almost transparent film of melted chocolate over the bottom of each. Once it has hardened, flip the cakes over and spread a slightly thicker film over the rest of the cakes. When the chocolate hardens, rewrap the cakes and store them at room temperature.

Serving: Slice the Pampepato not in wedges but like bread, across the width of the loaf, into long, thin slices. Arrange on a platter. Serve with a sweet wine or with after-dinner coffee.

From The Splendid Table: Recipes from Emilia-Romagna, the Heartland of Northern Italian Food by Lynne Rossetto Kasper (Morrow, 1992). © 1992 by Lynne Rossetto Kasper. All rights reserved.

Prep time: 
20 minutes
Cook time: 
1 hour and 30 minutes
Total time: 
Almost 2 hours, plus time for ripening
Yield: 
Makes 2 cakes, serves 6 to 8 each

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