Panettone – The King of Christmas Cakes

A towering, fluffy dome of panettone is an integral feature of any Italian Christmas. Delicious, but fiendishly difficult to make, this grand, festive cake has attracted its fair share of colourful legends.

Big, Bright Boxes tied with wide, shiny ribbons, piled high to create a perfect picture of bounty – what could be more in the spirit of Christmas? Anyone who has been in Italy in the weeks before il Natale can’t have failed to delight in the ubiquitous sight of panettone for sale. It is everywhere from cafés to bakeries to supermarkets and market stalls. Always stacked in opulent abundance, always a pleasure to see. This typical bread of Milan that has spread throughout much of the world, is as integral a part of Italy’s and increasingly that of other nations’, decorative yuletide shopping scene as the twinkling bulbs strung overhead in the streets.

Not only does it grace our own tables, but it makes a popular gift. Who wouldn’t feel generous delivering such a fat, glossy box to a friend? And who wouldn’t thrill to receive one?

The deliciousness inside the package is a bonus! Originally from Milan, the big cake is now just as likely to feature in the Christmas feasting of central or southern Italy. Or Switzerland and Latin America. In the latter countries, northern Italian immigrants introduced the dish more than a hundred years ago and it is now such a Christmas staple that Italian bakers are seeking the cake’s protected designation of origin and Denominazione di Origine Controllata/ Protetta (DOC/DOP status) to protect themselves from South American competition, where it is a Christmas Day staple! Australians have also become used to it at Christmas and some cafés serve it all year round.

Few Italians bake panettone themselves at home, because it is very difficult to make. It’s a case of having to mix like crazy and then proofing the dough properly, sometimes over several days, depending on what the climate and temperatures are doing. Ideally, the cake should be hung upside down to stretch while it cools – impractical in a home kitchen! (our readers, however, are made of tough stuff, and will no doubt relish the panettone recipe to follow). It is worth baking panettone just for the way it perfumes the kitchen – slowly filling the room with an intoxicating fruity vanilla fragrance. Whether baked at home or bought ready-made, the virtues of the cake are unmistakeable – an impossibly fluffy texture, a heavenly taste and aroma and a long-lasting freshness. Then there’s that impressive billowy height. Put a panettone on the table and people sit up and take notice.

Shape and Style

The classic panettone assumes the form of a tall dome – a large, cylindrical loaf almost a foot high with roughly the same circumference, although this can be varied, depending on your preference. It’s a light, not-too-sweet offering, studded with melting sultanas and candied citrus fruit. There are variations on this now-quintessential idea of panettone. It can be made as individual buns, or baked in the shape of an octagon or a many facetted star. It can be made without the candied fruit, or without the sultanas, sometimes flavoured with cocoa instead, or coated in a thin shell of chocolate.

Most unexpectedly, it can be made flat like focaccia, by purists wishing to honour the cake’s origins.

Secretly, the people of Milan eat panettone at all times of the year, but elsewhere it’s exclusively a Christmas thing, or occasionally an Easter treat. A wintry Italian Christmas suits it well, as the Italians like to leave it on top of a radiator for a few minutes to intensify its aromas before they dive in. Fat slices are then munched unadorned or doused with creams – mascarpone is traditional, but zabaglione or other flavoured creams are also common. It is washed down with hot drinks or sweet wines. Wrapped well and put away, it stays remarkably fresh for several days’ worth of festivities.

But, the current form wasn’t always how panettone looked and tasted. Like many classic Italian dishes, it saw a long, slow evolution over many centuries. More than most cakes, panettone has spawned a wealth of stories to explain its existence and its funny name. This being Italy, most of those tales concern romance and involve an audacious attempt to impress the object of one’s affection. Or they involve religious figures – the other Italian obsession…

Love and Baking

One common legend speaks of a lovestruck 15th-century nobleman, Ughetto Atellani, who was smitten by a poor baker’s daughter. In some versions her name is Antonia (“Toni” for short) and in other versions it’s her father who’s called Antonio (also “Toni” for short). Ughetto dazzled her and her father by lovingly baking a cake of the highest quality and calling it “Toni’s bread” or “Pan di Toni.” Marriage swiftly followed and Leonardo da Vinci was allegedly among the wedding guests. Hmmm.

It is worth baking panettone just for the way it perfumes the kitchen – slowly filling the room with an intoxicating fruityvanilla fragrance.

Another story talks of a young kitchen boy who saved the day when a Sforza royal family Christmas feast risked being ruined. Having accidentally burnt his own cakes to a cinder, the court cook had no dessert to offer the noble guests. While he was busy having a nervous breakdown, Toni the kitchen boy stepped forth and threw together all the luxury ingredients he could find – eggs, butter, sugar, raisins. The guests hailed the cook as a genius, and the man admitted that the credit should go to young Toni. Another “Pan di Toni” there.

In more recent centuries, a certain Friar Antonio was said to have a special passion for the cake. His ridiculously high ecclesiastical hats inspired a gently-mocking cook to bake one in a similar shape and present it to him as, you guessed it, “Pan di Toni.” The name caught on, as did the new shape. Sometimes the “Toni” of panettone isn’t a person at all. There are many historical references to “Pane di Ton,” which in milanese dialect would have meant “bread of distinction” or “bread of luxury.”

Well, don’t you go believing any of it! The sadly prosaic truth is that panettone most probably just slowly evolved from a dark country bread typical of Lombardy back in the 10th or 11th century. On Christmas night, it was traditional to sprinkle some red wine and juniper onto the blazing hearth logs, then share out bread among the family. In medieval times, white flour became increasingly popular and so the Christmas bread took on a different hue. Over time, luxury ingredients such as eggs, sugar, raisins and candied fruit became increasingly available and they got bunged into the Christmas bread too. Our modern idea of panettone was almost there.

Panettone was as flat as focaccia until around the 1850s, when recipes including yeast started to appear. In the early 20th century, Angelo Motta started producing the cakes on an industrial scale and it is most probably he who innovated the theatrically high dome shape and the meltingly fluffy texture, as he made his dough rise three times before baking. With Motta-brand panettone widely available, it was his shape and style of the cake that grew to become quintessential in the popular imagination.

Zeitgeist and Etymology

Interestingly, the more fanciful legends of panettone’s origins tell us rather more about what was going on in the 19th-century milanese psyche than what might or might not have occurred in the kitchens of Renaissance Lombardy. The “Toni” stories were all popularised in Milan during the 1800s, a period when the city was experiencing profound expansion as a wealthy centre of business. Each of the tales highlights entrepreneurship and sudden invention, a good business idea which established a fortune of one kind or another. The stories were enthusiastically embraced because they fitted so well with the 19th-century milanese citizens’ idea of themselves and their innovative part of the world.

But what of the name? No Toni? No luxury? The true etymology of panettone is a study in suffixes. “Pane” (bread) became “panetto” or “little loaf,” showing that this dish was once more like a bun than anything else. “Panetto” later received the aggrandising suffix “-one” making the cake “panettone,” or the “big little loaf!” Thus the word contains a kind of Alice in Wonderland magic, the bread that shrank to miniature then grew out of all proportion.

Panettone’s popularity round the world keeps on growing, of course. The delicatessens of Europe, America and Australia seem to stock an ever bigger pile of the glossy boxes every Christmas, as people who tried it for the first time at a friend’s house last year come back this year for one of their own. But eating it is only a part of the fun, of course. What could bring a greater feeling of accomplishment than baking one of your own? Go on, be brave.

In Italy, flour is classified either as 1, 0, or 00, and refers to how finely ground the flour is and how much of the bran and germ have been removed.

Doppio zero is the most highly refined and is talcum-powder soft. Many people assume that this softness also means that the flour is low in protein and therefore particularly suitable for making pasta but unsuitable for making bread. They are wrong.

Flours of varying protein levels can be milled to the 00 category. The 00 flours are higher in protein than many of the less-refined ones. Higher protein 00 flours that are suitable for making bread are labelled in Italy as “panificabile” — essentially “bread-ready.”

To make this grand, festive cake at home follow our recipe here

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