Updated: Dec 4, 2019
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 of bread, it later rose to dome-like proportions as panettone, the "big bread” of Christmas.
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 30 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 Milanese Christmas. Today panettone is made all over Italy from the Aosta Valley to Sicily, with neighborhood pasticcerie (pastry shops) using local ingredients to create regional variations.
There is something innately festive about panettone. The puffed dome, the sweet bread dough studded with jewel-like candied fruits and plump raisins. 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 can not compete with. Often too sweet, too dry or without substance industrial produced panettone felt (and tasted) artificial relegating it to a cabinet of food curiosities covered in dust.
Beyond the Industrial Dome
Artisan producers look at panettone as more than the ubiquitous dome-shaped cake that makes a colorful holiday display. 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.