David Downie: Pandolce, Italian Riviera Icon

Published by Monday, February 7, 2011 Permalink 0
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by David Downie

Pandolce is one of the Italian Riviera’s culinary icons. It’s found from the Cinque Terre near Tuscany, to Genoa, all the way to Ventimiglia on the border with France. Ligurians call pandolce “pandöçe” in their challenging, tongue-dislocating dialect. For lack of a better description in English, you might reasonably call it a Christmas fruit cake.

Pandolce comes in two basic formats. The old-fashioned one, made in bakeries or at home (by about 10 people in the entire region) is tall, porous, airy and leavened twice, and has a round or dome-shaped form. It’s the Riviera’s answer to Milanese panettone.

The other Ligurian variety, which everyone mistakenly calls all’antica (it’s much more recent in invention) stands only a few inches high, is dense and heavy and fabulously good: take a look at the pic on this page (by Alison Harris, of course).

Both types are studded with pine nuts, raisins and candied fruit, and though both are made year round these days, they’re always at their best—fresh and full of goodies—in the Christmas season. Here in Liguria the holidays stretch from late December through Epifania (Epiphany, January 6), which is also known as La Befana. (La Befana is the frugal, good witch of yesteryear who brings kids wholesome little presents, but has largely been outdone by obese, imported Santa with his huge, expensive, fattening, bankrupting presents).

On my personal top-ten list of best pandolce-makers I would include the following: Panificio Maccarini (in San Rocco di Camogli; larger specimen in photo above), Pasticceria Revello (on the seaside road in Camogli), Panificio Pasticceria Fratelli Terarolli (in Luni, near the Tuscan border), Confetteria Rossi (in Genova), and, of course, the inimitable Irma Pestarino and her family at Pestarino (in the main alleyway in Santa Margherita Ligure; small “baciccia” pandolci in photo above). None of these has ever paid me to write advertising copy, by the way.

If you’ve been reading my posts regularly, by now you’ll know where to find the complete list of pandolce makers—plus hundreds of restaurants, gourmet food shops, focaccia makers, chocolate makers, winemakers and more, more, more. (If you don’t know, click here).

For the handful of intrepid home bakers willing to do some hard but pleasant work, and wait for the results, here’s a free recipe for pandolce, the classic leavened Ligurian Christmas cake that some fundamentalist locals still make at home, a loving ritual. (The recipe is adapted from my book, Enchanted Liguria. As you’ll know by now, it’s out of print—meaning, hey, no worries, this is free free free! Like everything on the Internet! Gratis! Why should writers or photographers earn a living off their work anyway? Royalties? A thing of the past! Writers and photographers — we’re all citizen writers and photographers now — should give everything away, and live like air ferns, letting Google and others in the corporate profit-sphere deal with the messy business of money… Am I being ironic? Never!)


Assemble the following ingredients:

About 1 and 3/4 oz. brewer’s yeast
About 7 cups of all purpose flour (that’s a kilo, by the way), plus extra if needed
Patience—you have to wait 12 hours or more for the yeasty mother to be ready!
2 to 3 tablespoons orange flower water
About 1 cup Marsala or other sweet wine suitable for cooking
2 sticks of unsalted butter, melted
About 1 cup sugar
1 ounce fennel seeds
3 1/2 ounces pine nuts
5 ounces raisins
1 cup mixed candied fruit
A pinch of salt
Milk, warm, a few tablespoons at a time (you might need up to 1/2 cup of it)

Now, have fun, and remember this is a two-day process (bye bye, busy Internauts):

1. Stir the brewer’s yeast into a cup of warm water and add as much of the flour as the yeasty water will absorb. Kneed and let sit, covered, in a warm spot, for about 12 hours. Use this as your pasta madre (i.e. a mother or leavening agent).

2. Pour the remaining flour into a mound, dig a crater into it and add the mother. Drizzle in the orange flower water and Marsala and add the melted butter. Kneed slowly, with your fingers and palms, adding the the remaining ingredients, about 6 minutes total (kneed too long and the dough will get rubbery). Add milk by the tablespoon if necessary to keep the dough moist and just elastic enough to handle.

3. Shape the dough into a round loaf, set it in a greased round oven pan about 8 inches in diameter, drape a dishcloth over the pan and let the dough rise for about 12 hours.

4. Uncover your pale, risen pandolce loaf and score the top of it with a knife to make a triangle (or some other shape to your liking). Bake in a preheated hot oven at 425F for about 1 hour, until the pandolce is golden brown, and a toothpick or spaghetto (that’s singular for spaghetti) when stuck into it comes out dry. Let the pandolce cool to room temperature before serving it.

Goes great with coffee, tea, dry white wine, sweet dessert wine such as Ligurian Sciacchetrà…

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