Panettone is a traditional Italian sweet bread that could just change the way you feel about fruitcake. Well it’s not actually a fruitcake, far from it. It’s light and airy with the incensual aroma of a Milanese pasticerria. In fact Milano is the birthplace of panettone. Commonly held legends as to its origin vary but one favorite story tells of a 15th century Christmas banquet given by Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. There was no dessert until a young kitchen helper named Toni baked up sweet fruit-studded bread, thereby saving the meal and endowing the bread with its given name, panettone (bread of Toni). Descriptive and poetic yes but the realty may be less dramatic. Food historians credit the naming of this cake-like bread to the Italian word panetto meaning a small loaf of bread. Because the bread when baked increases in size to a cylindrical 12-15cm domed-shaped loaf the Italian suffix –one (pronounced o-neh), which implies something bigger, was added changing the name to panettone.
The popularity of Italian panettone has caused it to be duplicated and re-created many times over, surfacing in the most unlikely places; gas stations, Walgreens and big box stores. Don’t confuse panettone tradizionale with the mass marketed panettone found in big box discount stores in the States. It is about as far removed in taste and quality as mortadella is from b-o-l-o-g-n-a. A true Italian panettone should be fresh and flavorful, soft and airy.
The shelf life for an unopened panettone is typically 2 months. Traditionally in Italy a small amount of panettone is saved after the holiday to be eaten on February 3rd, the Feast of San Biagio. Legend has it that just before Christmas a woman went to have her panettone blessed by the village priest who could not bless the bread at the time. Leaving the bread, the priest thought that the woman had forgotten about it and so he ate it himself. However she returned, on the feast of San Biagio. The saint had interceded and the relieved priest, to his great surprise. found a whole panettone twice the size of the one left by the woman.
Since San Biago is the saint protector of the throat, it is believed that eating panettone on the saint’s feast day will protect you from the illnesses of winter. I never seem to have the willpower to save my panettone but this year I plan on buying 2, one to eat and one to use in place of the flu shot I never got.