Panettone isn’t the same old dessert it used to be. Bakery collaborations with iconic fashion houses; Instagram accounts showing gravity-defying air pockets; and panettone fairs are just a few of the signs that this dessert is on the move.
It’s a sweet bread or fruitcake enjoyed for Christmas and New Year in Western Europe and South America thanks to Italian immigrants who brought it with them back in the 1900s. It has a domed shape and comes in a range of flavors.
When you pick up a panettone at the drugstore this holiday season, you’re enjoying the product of 700 years of innovation and migration. The yeasted, buttery dessert hops oceans and traverses continents, baking in kitchens and factories, and traveling in bags and hat boxes.
One of the most popular legends about the origins of Panettone starts in the 15th century at the court of Ludovico il Moro, lord of Milan. The official chef of the court inadvertently burned a cake and kitchen scullion Toni used what was left – flour, eggs, butter, and citron zest – to make a sweet dessert for Christmas dinner.
In the early 1900s, baker Angelo Motta discovered how to mass-produce the cake and gave it its unique tall shape. He figured out how to let the dough proof and rise for an entire day, which is what gives it its signature flavor. He and his competitor Gioacchino Alemagna then marketed the new Panettone to Italian immigrants in America, where it has since become a holiday staple.
Panettone can be served with a wide variety of accompaniments. It is also often eaten with a cup of coffee or tea.
Its preparation is not easy and requires a good understanding of the chemistry involved in baking. The dough is leavened with active dry yeast, lard or butter, sugar, and eggs and the fruits are added after the dough has been proofed (usually for three days).
This long “proofing” process is what gives panettone its unique, light-as-air texture. It is also what makes it difficult for most home bakers to make.
When the dough is ready, tip it out on a floured surface and gently knead in the soaked raisins and candied peel. Shape the dough and fill a prepared panettone paper mold or cake pan. Let rise, uncovered, in a warm place until it reaches almost to the top of the mold. Bake in a hot oven for approximately 45 minutes, testing with a wooden skewer.
The classic version of panettone is studded with raisins and candied citrus peel, but there are now amazing variations to suit everybody – even those who hate dried fruit! There are also a range of fantastic flavors ranging from chocolate to hazelnut to pistachio.
Panettone is now prepared all over Italy and beyond for Christmas and New Year. While the mass-produced versions of it in stores all over the world are made via industrial methods, there are still many artisan bakers here and overseas who produce it in small batches using traditional techniques.
It is a very complex cake to make, but the result is an extraordinary combination of soft and light dough, airy structure and sweet, rich ingredients. Panettone is a truly dramatic and scrumptious dessert or breakfast treat, to be served with a cup of coffee, tea or sweet wine. It is a triumph of the Italian bakery’s art.
The preparation of Panettone requires time and patience. It is important to follow the recipe exactly and use quality ingredients to get the best results.
The dough starter (biga or lievito madre) is prepared the night before and left to rise in a warm place overnight. This is a type of pre-fermentation that allows the dough to develop more flavor and makes it lighter in texture.
Enriched doughs like this one require a lot of proofing (rising) after mixing and again after shaping. The soaking of the raisins and candied peel in rum adds to the flavor but is not essential.
Panettone is traditionally baked for Christmas and New Year in Milan and throughout Western, Southern and Southeastern Europe. It is also enjoyed in other parts of the world. It has a tall dome shape and is light and fluffy. The dough is leavened with yeast and enriched with eggs, butter, milk and sugar. There are many variations on the traditional cake including different shapes and flavours of fruit.