Panettone – An Anticipated Holiday Tradition in Italy


panetton ingredient 2

Panettone is an anticipated holiday tradition that places it at the center of Christmas celebrations. It is also one of the most involved and difficult Italian cakes.

Derived from  panetto, the size of a small loaf, it later rose to dome-like proportions as panettone “big bread”. A native Italian panettone is made over several days by artisanal bakers who hand-shape the finicky dough made with natural yeast that takes at least 36 hours to rise, then fold candied fruit into the dome-shaped cake.

There are competing stories about the varied history of panettone. From an ancient Roman bread sweetened with honey, to a luxury loaf prepared by personal chefs of popes and emperors, to a fanciful legend about a Milanese baker named Toni during the reign of Ludovico Sforza (1450-1520). Panettone as a modern Christmas dessert was introduced in 1919 by Angelo Motta, a Milanese confectioner and businessman. Motta adapted the mold for panettone, using a ring of paper to give the dough the vertical, puffed-top shape that we see today. Due to his efforts, panettone became the popularized icon of Milan and Christmas.

There is something innately festive about panettone. The puffed dome, the sweet bread dough studded with jewel-like candied fruits and plump raisons. Dramatically wrapped the Italian way with flowing bows in sparkling glossy boxes in the rich colors of the Renaissance. Italian bakers and pastry chefs continue the historical making of panettone every year during the Christmas season and we are the fortunate beneficiaries of their efforts.

Panic about Panettone

However many panettone purists are concerned about the integrity of today’s panettone. Representatives from the Italian consortium of bakers and confectioners state that  7 out of 10 Americans buying an ‘Italian-style’ panettone are getting a fake, an inferior knock-off that does not represent the true version. Commercially produced panettone further confuse the consumer with lesser quality ingredients, instant yeast and added preservatives.

Imitators share shelf space with large displays in supermarkets, big box stores and outlet shops sold at mass produced price points that a native panettone could not compete with. Often too sweet, too dry or without substance industrial produced panettone felt (and tasted) artificial relegating it to a cabinet of curiosities covered in dust.

Beyond the Industrial Dome

Artisan producers look at panettone as more than the ubiquitous dome-shaped cake of an Italian Christmas. It is a protected food tradition, a symbol of hospitality and conviviality that celebrates this special season. Reaching back artisan makers using quality local ingredients, innovate and  seek to preserve the scents and softness, color, texture and unique flavor of the traditional dome cake-like bread of Christmas.

Panettone now as then is a symbol of tradition and technique. Artisan producers manage the ingredients to create the characteristic elements of the panettone – the soft, elastic dough that makes it unique and the time it takes for the perfect rising. Believing that the wait too becomes a marker of quality and a symbol of the coming of Christmas.

panetone ingredients
The Magic of the Mix

The Unlikely Occurrences of February 3rd

Sheep pen (Luttrell_Psalter)In Italy the beginning of February has nothing to do with groundhogs and shadows but rather with a cake-like bread, the blessing of throats and celebrating woolen blankets. These disparate, seemly unlike, items and events do have a common denominator in Italy and his name is San Biago.

San Biago or St. Blaise, like St. Nicholas, was one of those saints who accumulated the legends and lore of folk customs for a variety of reasons.  Best known as the saint protector of the throat since he once saved a child from choking, San Biago is  also the patron saint of shepherds and the woolen industry because he was allegedly martyred on a prickly stone table used for combing out wool. His feast day, February 3rd, is especially celebrated in Italian towns and European villages where wool was worked. saint-blaise

Coincidentally February 3rd is also the last “best buy date” for a Milanese panettone baked over the Christmas holidays. The citizens of Milan ( where a statue of the Saint sits atop a spire of their Duomo) save their last piece of panettone to eat that day to commemorate San Biago and a legend.  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 so he ate it himself. However she returned on the feast of San Biagio. To the priest’s great surprise, San Biago had interceded and the relieved priest found a whole panettone twice the size of the one left by the woman.

Today I’ll be eating my last slice of panettone under a warm woolen  blanket invoking San Biago to protect me from the illnesses of winter. I never  seem to have the willpower to save my panettone so this year I bought two, one to eat and one to use in place of the flu shot I never got. Grazie San Biago.

A French Bump in the Culinary Road to Italy

Beignet means bump in French and although torta della Nonna, Tuscan panforte and Milanese panettone are at the top of my la dolce vita list, you can’t think about Italian pastries without a French twist. Like  the Italian ciambella , a fried dough pastry similar to a French beignet (with a hole in it). The pasticceria of Italy were built on a long and tasty culinary relationship with the French. On one my earliest trips to Italy I learned about the culinary fusion between 16th century French and Italian pastry chefs resulting in a sweet cuisine that influenced the world of gastronomy forever after.

We joined our Milanese cousins on a visit across town to meet with friends who were entertaining us with afternoon dessert. In Italy, afternoon dessert is as traditional as English tea and we were looking forward to an assortment of homemade biscotti, slices of torta di ricotta, cannoli, perhaps even a tiramisu. We were treated to all of the above but the piece di resistance was a St. Honore cake, a dessert named for the French patron saint of bakers. It is a specialty of Italian bakeries as well as French ones. st honore cake 2The cake is a rich combination of a pastry sponge and a thick pastry cream lightened with whipped cream or Italian meringue. The Italian variant uses Marsala wine in place of rum. Italians love this cake and serve it mostly for special occasions as it is complicated and time consuming to make. Another famous sweet found in Italian pastry shops is the Napoleon which ironically has nothing to do with Napoleon Bonaparte. The name is actually a mistranslation of the French word “Napolitain” which places its origins in Naples, a region with a culinary history of making layered confections known as mille foglie or in French mille-fueille both of which mean a thousand leaves.

This culinary cross walk between Italy and France began during the Renaissance when Tuscany’s Caterina de Medici married Henry of Orléans, the future king of France. Florentine cooks accompanied Caterina to her new home along with their secrets of Italian cooking and dining. Caterina’s influence reputedly reformed the antique style of French medieval cooking and gave rise to the science and art of cooking practiced today and the sweet and decadent desserts we all enjoy.

The Golden Dome

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.

The Sisters Who Make Panettone

Every holiday season Italians line up at the local pasticerria to buy panettone, the traditional Milanese cake-like bread so loved by Italians that they are willing to stand in line when they see the tall domed boxes appear in pastry shop windows.

Once again CosituttiMarketPlace will be offering Sorelle Nurzia Panettone Tradizionale during the Holiday Season. Sorelle Nurzia has been making traditional panettone since 1835. Don’t confuse this panettone 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 bologna. Fresh and flavorful, soft and airy, Sorelle Nurzia panettone can be eaten right from the box, warmed as toast or made into a delicious bread pudding. The traditional Milanese panettone of Sorelle Nurzia are made in the town of L’Aquila. After the earthquake, the established market of artisan Italian food products and the jobs of many women (sorelle means sisters in Italian) in L’Aquila were disrupted.

CosituttiMarketPlace supports the Italian food industry and the conservation of the traditional flavors of Italy especially the efforts of the regional artisan food producers of L’Aquila to regain their position after this tragedy.