While everyone else is making spiced nuts for holiday party snacks and edible gifts, why not try these totally irresistible walnut bites – a darker version of the Italian panforte, with a pungent, forward flavor, and laced with freshly ground black pepper, cinnamon, cocoa powder, candied lemon peel, raisins, and walnut halves.
Serve them up with a cheese course (a nicely aged Parmiggiano-Reggiano and a sip of vin santo works for me), or team them with a slice of the cheese, stack the two on a toothpick, and eccoci - the perfect holiday appetizer.
Walnut bites: Italian panpepato
Makes 32 bites | Equipment: a 9 1/2 x 9 1/2-inch (24 x 24 cm) baking pan; baking parchment
1/2 cup (65 g) dried black currants or raisins
1/2 cup (125 ml) sweet wine, such as marsala, vin santo, or port
2 tablespoons (1 ounce; 30 g) unsalted butter
3/4 cup (150 g) vanilla sugar
1/4 cup (60 ml) intensely-flavored honey, such as chestnut
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 cups (250 g) walnut halves
3 dried figs, chopped
1 cup (90 g) candied lemon peel, preferably organic, cut into fine cubes
1/4 cup (40 g) unbleached, all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon coarse, freshly ground black pepper, such as Tellicherry
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, preferably Vietnamese cassia
1. In a small bowl, soak the currants or raisins in 1/4 cup (60 ml) of the wine for 1 hour.
2. Line the baking pan with baking parchment, letting the parchment hang over the ends. (This will make it easier to remove the panpepato once it’s baked.)
3. Center a rack in the oven. Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C).
4. In a small saucepan, melt the butter over low heat. Add the sugar, honey, and salt, stirring to blend.
5. In a large bowl, combine the currants and their soaking liquid, walnuts, figs, and candied peel, and stir to coat the walnuts. In another bowl, combine the flour, pepper, cocoa powder, and cinnamon, and stir to blend. Toss to blend. Add the flour mixture to the currant mixture, along and the remaining 1/4 cup (60 ml) wine. Stir to evenly coat the walnuts. Add the butter mixture and stir again to blend. The mixture will be very dense and sticky. Spoon the mixture into the parchment-lined pan and smooth it out with a spatula. (Note that the mixture will be a walnut brown as it is placed in the oven, and turns dark, almost black as it bakes.)
6. Place the pan in the oven and bake until bubbly, dark, and fragrant, about 35 minutes. The mixture will be sticky, but will firm up as it cools in the pan.
7. Once it has cooled, cut the panpepato into very tiny bites. (Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 weeks.)
NOTE: Weighing and preparing your ingredients in advance (known as mis-en-place) will make putting the recipe together faster and considerably less messy. And as a bonus, you're much less likely to forget an ingredient. A good tip to use for every recipe.
WINE SUGGESTION: As an appetizer, I love these with a glass of Champagne. With the cheese course, try an Italian vin santo, a Sicilian Marsala, a Porto, or a French vin doux naturel, such as the Grenache-based Rasteau from the southern Rhône.