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Perfect Panettone (and Creative Ways to Use the Leftovers)

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Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes, one ingredient at a time.

Panettone, Italy's traditional Christmas bread, is rich with fruit and history.

Panettone, Italy's traditional Christmas bread, is rich with fruit and history.

The Italian Christmas Cake

In England there is fruitcake, a dessert which actually consists of more fruit and nut than batter; it’s often glazed and flavored with a boozy sugar syrup.

German families enjoy a sugar-dusted stolen; it’s half-moon shaped and similar to the Brit’s fruitcake (but without the rum or whiskey).

And in Italy, every family welcomes the Christmas season with panettone (pah-neh-TOW-nay). This stunning loaf is tall, proud, and dome-shaped. The bread is soft and brioche-like, enriched with butter and eggs. It’s sweetened with sugar, raisins, and candied fruit.

But, once upon a time panettone was a mere loaf of wheat bread. Well, that’s one of the stories we’ve been told.

A Food Blogger's Passion for Panettone

Milan is home to Stanislao Porzio, an internationally known food blogger and an unabashed lover of the panettone. He conceived of and organized “Re Panettone,” an annual celebration in his home city (reputed to be the birthplace of panettone) to promote the excellence of the bread and to showcase the artisan bakers who create it. Those who vie for the crown of “King Panettone” must vow to use all-natural ingredients, free of preservatives or additives.

Porzio is, in fact, so passionate about the topic that in 2007 he published an entire book on panettone. He explained its origins in this way:

Panettone is first documented by a manuscript conserved in the city’s Ambrosian Library. It goes back to the 1470s and is authored by Giorgio Valagussa, the preceptor of the House of Sforza. In the text, a dialogue between the master and his pupils is narrated about the Ceremony of the Log that had been celebrated by the family of the Duke since time immemorial. On the night of 24th December, a huge log was placed in the fireplace. This log was supposed to burn until Epiphany. The pater familias, after having sprinkled it with wine and set it ablaze, cut from each of ‘three great loves of wheat bread’, a symbol of the Trinity, a ‘particle’ (Valagussa uses precisely this Eucharistic term), which was to be set aside until the following year. Of course, all the remaining slices were distributed among those present.”

But I Prefer the Fairy Tale Approach

Although Porzio's description is probably closer to the truth, I prefer the romance of other stories created to explain the name and genesis of this Milanese sweet. Here is a sampling:

Our first story takes place in the 15th century. Ughetto degli Atellani was a Milanese nobleman. Because of his social standing, he could have chosen any woman to be his wife, but he fell head-over-heels in love with Adalgisa, the daughter of Toni, a poor, humble baker. To woo her, he disguised himself as a baker and used the best of ingredients (butter, eggs, and dried fruits) to create a rich, moist, flavorful bread of tender crumb. Some say that the bread was named “Pan de Ton” which, loosely translated means "bread of the rich." Others say that the bread was named after the father-in-law, Toni the baker. By the way, although this is a lovely story, I sincerely doubt that, even with the best of ingredients, a novice could create a flawless loaf of bread.

Another tale takes place in Castello Sforzesco (the Sforza Castle). In the 15th century Ludovico Sforza was the Duke of Milan (yes, he was a big deal). On Christmas Eve his head chef had the great misfortune of burning the dessert. Toni, a lowly scullery, leaped to the rescue, offering a bit of sourdough he had been holding aside to make a humble loaf of bread for himself. Toni, great guy that he was, whipped that meager bit of dough into a magnificent pastry as he kneaded in raisins and candied fruit. He baked the loaf, the chef retained his position (and his head), and the loaf was christened Pan de Toni in honor of the inventor. (By the way, here’s a bit of trivia. It was Ludovico Sforza who commissioned the painting of The Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci. Maybe he really was a big deal).

What Makes a Great Panettone?

Rich Tangy Dough

The original panettone was a sourdough, a bread leavened with wild yeasts and lactic bacteria. Any sourdough connoisseur understands that yeast doughs that are allowed to mellow and ferment are richer in flavor and texture. That is certainly the key to an authentic panettone. But, the dough on the panettone is also rich and brioche-like. Standard loaves are moistened with water; our bread is created with eggs and milk and then further enriched with butter and sweetened with sugar.

Dried Fruits (That Aren’t Dry)

When dried fruits (of any kind) meet up with moisture, they greedily absorb every last drop. If you plump them in a warm bath of liquid (water, juice, alcohol) they will happily mind their manners when folded into your bread dough. However, if you don’t pre-hydrate them, guess what happens? Those greedy little moisture-seekers will grab onto the wetness in your dough, resulting in a dry, lifeless loaf of bread.

Perfect panettone that's worth eating

Perfect panettone that's worth eating

The Ultimate Panettone

I researched dozens of recipes in search of the perfect panettone and believe that I have indeed located the ultimate. However, it's not from the Fanny Farmer Baking book, nor was it taken from a well-worn card from my Italian nana's recipe file.

Max Bernstein, is a baker, cook, and educator; he studied the art of bread baking at the French Culinary Institute in New York City and is a contributing writer for Serious Eats, the warehouse for meticulously tested recipes backed by in-depth scientific analysis.

Max has simplified the creation of the perfect panettone, but don't equate simple with speedy. Plan on two days for this task, from beginning to end (but only one hour of the estimated 24 to 30 hours is active time). That rich dough we want comes together without a sourdough starter—cultured buttermilk provides the tang and soft texture. And those dried fruits luxuriate overnight in a bourbon/lemon zest soak.

Panettone bread pudding

Panettone bread pudding

Panettone Bread Pudding

The brown sugar in this first recipe does more than merely sweeten the dish—it creates a caramel-like sauce. It imparts a slight burnt, smoky taste . . . and much more. There's extra sauce to spoon on this panettone bread pudding, topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Panettone stuffing

Panettone stuffing

Panettone Stuffing

At first thought, this might seem a totally odd way of using a fruity cake—in stuffing? But trust me; how does this differ from using bread cubes and then tossing in dried cranberries or raisins in a stuffing for the Thanksgiving bird (or other fowl)? Combining fruits and savory spices is common in northern European cooking. This panettone stuffing is sweet and savory, and it would make a wonderful side for roast pork too.

Panettone tiramisu

Panettone tiramisu

Panettone Tiramisu

What is tiramisu? First, it’s an Italian phrase which loosely translated means “pick me up” or “cheer me up.” The original is a coffee-flavored layered dessert somewhat like the English trifle. Crisp ladyfingers stand in for the pound cake of the English treat, and custard is replaced with a fluffy mixture of whipped eggs, sugar, and mascarpone cheese.

But in this recipe, we don't use ladyfingers. Panettone tiramisu uses up the leftover slices of your Christmas cake.

Panettone waffles

Panettone waffles

Panettone Waffles

These panettone waffles are so easy you might dismiss them as ordinary and not worth trying. You'd be missing out on an amazing treat. Slice your panettone, butter and sprinkle with cinnamon sugar. Toast in your favorite waffle iron and then (are you ready for this?) top with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. If you are feeling especially decadent, you can further gild the lily with a drizzle of chocolate sauce.

Panettone ice cream

Panettone ice cream

Panettone Ice Cream

Anisa toasts cubes of our Christmas cake in the oven and then steeps them in a warm pan of vanilla-scented cream and milk. This "steeping" extracts every bit of panettone flavor. That lovely flavored cream is then used to make a traditional custard which, when frozen, makes the richest, creamy panettone ice cream you will ever taste.

Panettone French Toast

Trivia

  • Italian families consume an estimated 5.5 pounds of panettone per year.
  • The world’s most expensive panettone (costing 80,000 euros) was made by an Italian pastry chef for a Russian billionaire. It was covered with gold leaf and decorated with diamonds.
  • The largest panettone on record weighed 732 pounds and stood 1.5 meters (just short of 5 feet) tall.

Sources

© 2020 Linda Lum

Comments

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on November 30, 2020:

Manatita, first thank you for taking the extra time required to find my article and t post a comment. “They” (Hub Pages) aren’t making this easy for us, are they? So much to consider and respond to in your comments.

First of all, several years ago I wrote an article on tiramisu. Google “Tiramisu: Folklore and Fun Recipes for a Fantastic Italian Dessert.” Tada! My first guess on why it might seem so much more than a mere trifle is that it is a bit boozy.

I had a wonderful Thanksgiving Day with just the 5 of us (me, Mr. Carb, two daughters and son-in-law). The entire day spent with loved ones is the best part for me. Being able to cook for those loved ones seems like icing on the cake as the saying goes (perhaps that’s an American expression?). For me, cooking is a way of showing love. Love is the key ingredient in everything I present to my dear ones.

The part about the indigenous people might have a bit of folklore mingled with fact, but the story is that the Pilgrims (the first settlers to the New World in the 1600s) would have starved to death in their first winter in North America if not for the benevolence of the native peoples. Food (and knowledge of how to grow it for the future) was shared.

manatita44 from london on November 30, 2020:

What I see is lots of good and alluring food and some great and juicy stories. The Da Vinci part is interesting! I have had Italian Tiramisu. Here's a question? What makes it so delectable? It's nothing like the English trifle! More profound and sublime! Stay well.

Note: I remember you saying something about having a great Thanksgiving and family time. I saw two poetess explaining it on different days. A white American and a black American, both, interestingly, in response to questions as to what made it special.

One said food, gratitude and a bit about the indigenous people. The other said food, social family time and also mentioned the indigenous people. That last part I did not know. No one here has mentioned it as far as I can see. Peace.

Adrienne Farricelli on November 30, 2020:

I was raised in Italy and panettone and pandoro have been always around me during the holidays. My husband's sister works for a panettone factory so we always have some when we visit. There are so many types now filled with a variety of creams. Thanks for sharing many leftover recipes. I am glad that panettone has become so popular even in the US.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on November 30, 2020:

MizB thank you for taking the time to find me and comment. I'm sorry that this is perhaps one of the foods that will not adapt to gluten-free, but the all-purpose GF flours that are made today are far better than what was available even just a few years ago. If you have the ingredients I'd be tempted to give it a try.

Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on November 30, 2020:

I had to stop what I was doing and read this wonderful article in the feed, Linda. I went super crazy when I discovered Pannetone after Christmas at a local Tuesday Morning store. It is one of my favorite breads (cakes?). I keep intending to try to make one using the usual baking powder for gluten-free, but I know the texture won't be the same and that is part of the attraction. It it doesn't turn out very well, I guess I can always make bread pudding out of it. That sounded delicious, but as expensive as store bought panettone is, I wouldn't sacrifice it to pudding.

Thanks for such a great article, my friend.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on November 30, 2020:

Good morning Pamela. The book is slow-going but anything worth doing is worth doing well (at least that was what my Dad would say). Thanks for your kind comments. I'll bet you did have panettone when you were young. I seem to recall seeing in the department stores at Christmastime.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on November 30, 2020:

Flourish, I would die without my oven. (Well, actually I wouldn't but my moaning and groaning to my family would perhaps put my life in peril). When you get that oven again, you can make your own panatonne and 86 the raisins.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on November 30, 2020:

Bill, I would wager that it's both--this is a stunningly magnificent article AND HP is being as ultra-annoying as ever. Thanks my friend.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on November 30, 2020:

Thank you John. I hope you enjoy the recipes (but I can't fathom Christmas in summer).

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on November 30, 2020:

This one disappeared quickly. I usually have a couple hours leeway before it changes to another site, but not this one. That either means this is a very special article, or HP is trying to be ultra-annoying today. Sigh!

I hope this last day of November is a good one for you, my friend.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on November 30, 2020:

This is such an fascinating article, Linda. I love the history of this cake. The french toast looks so delicious also. I think I had Panatonne when I was very young, so it has been a long time. Panatonne is better than a regular fruitcake. Good luck with that book you are writing.

FlourishAnyway from USA on November 30, 2020:

Oh, my my. You had me at boozy sugar syrup. I've seen these but never tasted them (scared off but the raisins) but your recipes tempt me. Without an oven for weeks on end, I won't be making anything soon, but I can dream, right? Sigh.

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on November 29, 2020:

We tend to have the moist English style fruit cake for Christmas (sometimes my wife makes it, sometimes a friend of ours, Rance, gifts us one he has made) but other years we buy a panatonne for a change. I didn’t realise it was quite as versatile as you have shown so maybe I will encourage my wife to attempt to make one. Thanks Linda.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on November 29, 2020:

Thanks Peggy. We usually don't have a problem with leftovers either.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on November 29, 2020:

My husband buys some Panatonne each year around Christmas. Thanks for your ideas of how to use leftovers, although I think that he will eat it just as it comes.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on November 29, 2020:

Hi Linda. I think panettone is the best kind of fruitcake. It makes the most excellent French toast. It's good to hear from you and I'm glad you enjoyed the article.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on November 29, 2020:

I enjoyed reading about panettone very much. I discovered a version imported from Europe in my local supermarket last year and loved it. I'd never heard about panettone before then. I know it would be fresher if I made it myself, but I'm very tempted to buy another loaf this year.

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