Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes, one ingredient at a time.
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.
Read More From Delishably
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
- 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.
© 2020 Linda Lum