I was going to write a little piece on Christmas in Italy. The decorations in town, the window dressings, the passion Italians have for nativity scenes all over the country (even live-action, when COVID isn’t a thing), and how they decorate their Christmas trees on December 8th, the Day of Immaculate Conception.
But I decided that all I really wanted to write about was… panettone. It is now officially anchored for my family as a Christmas holiday tradition.
Our first Christmas in Italy was last year (2019), when we explored Puglia and stayed in the gleaming white town of Martina Franca. There, we tried a couple of different panettone, enjoying them, and it’s there that our
obsession tradition began.
What is it about panettone that has fascinated me so much?
Well, aside from my not typically imbibing in bready desserts, I make an exception for a daily slice of panettone in the Christmas holiday season. I really love saying the word, too. Feel free to take your time as you let it roll off your tongue: pahn-eh-TOE-neh.
For authentic Italian, pause for half a beat on the double-T’s.
It’s a strange thing, my fondness for panettone. It’s not like some wonderfully sweet, chocolate, decadent cake with buttercream frosting that shoots off fireworks in your brain, or mom’s homemade cinnamon apple pie, with flaky buttery crust that you eat warm and bubbly from the oven topped with ice cream that’s just beginning to melt.
Yet, I like you, panettone, very much.
Panettone is much simpler. It’s more like sweetened bread.
There are many varieties of panettone: chocolate, apple, caramel, liquor, olive oil, coffee… you name it, it’s out there. And many prices. But our favorite is the traditional version, without extras (chocolate is a fun addition, but not ever a substitute). All the more reason to have multiple panettone throughout the season, to try different ones.
I’ve paid from as little as five euro up to 26 euro for panettone. For the most part, they’re all usually delicious, save for a couple that seemed a bit dry (nothing that a splash of red wine or Baileys can’t help). The one we are saving for Christmas will have small strawberry bits and chocolate in it (pictured above in the beautiful pink wrapping).
Artisanal panettone is very simple. It has only flour, sugar, fresh egg (at least 4% yolk, by law!), butter (16% or more!), raisins and candied citrus peel (no less than 20%), and natural yeast from sourdough (yes!!!), plus salt.
There’s the Texture of Panettone…
I love the dance of give and resistance when you bite into it and chew. It’s most satisfying because of this. The texture itself rivals the most tasty cake with frosting. The feel when you bite and chew is rather… sublime.
But then there also are the jewels inside! More texture! Raisins and candied citrus, giving you little bites of the most dazzling buried treasure.
The Color of Panettone…
I think I might love panettone so much also because of the color. True panettone comes with a set amount of butter and egg yolks, yielding a gilded hunk of not-too-sweet decadence in your hand.
The Tearing of Panettone…
I love how you can quite literally, just rip off a hunk of it. I always cut the first piece, but after that, my family tends to just tear chunks and eat it, plate or no, it doesn’t matter as there are practically no crumbs.
The Fun Ways People Eat Panettone…
People slice it, toast it under the broiler, and drench it in butter (you’d think I’d be all over this one, but I like it by itself). Some make French toast with it. Some eat it a la mode (I approve of this one). Some people make sandwiches with it. Some people, my husband in particular, enjoy it with rum poured on top or alongside coffee with Bailey’s.
But honestly, of all the ways, I can’t improve on the way it is, au naturale. The unmistakable smell of panettone that fills your nose when you open a package is the promise of the flavor that will play on your tongue. I typically do not like to mess with this, as it’s this true anchor of panettone to me, that flavor, aroma, and feel in my mouth.
To tear a hunk off and head out for my walk, chewing, enjoying… that is the way I love it.
The History of Panettone
Panettone originally hails from Milan. The cake dough takes several hours to make, using a process much like making sourdough bread. (No wonder I adore it.) It must rise and fall three times before it’s baked. This makes it a health food, right?
I read a darling story in Italy Magazine which tells of how the name of panettone came to be.
It is said that at the 15th century court of Duke Ludovico, during a Christmas celebration, the chef burned the dessert. When the Duke demanded that dessert be served, the chef became visibly distressed and, seeing this, a scullery boy named Toni approached him and explained that he’d made a sweet loaf out of left-overs and offered this bread to the chef who accepted and served it at court. The dessert was a success and the Duke called the chef to congratulate him in front of his guests, however, unable to take the credit, the chef told everyone who had really made the bread and that’s how it became known as panettone; the bread of the scullery boy, Toni.Italy Magazine
And another story of its origins, this one romantic… ♥️
The popular legend is that of a nobleman and falconer named Ughetto, who fell in love with Adalgisa, the daughter of a baker whose business had hit upon hard times. Ughetto’s family were unhappy with his choice and forbade him to marry such a lowly girl. In a bid to continue seeing his lover, Ughetto in disguise took a job at the bakery where one day after selling some of his falcons, he purchased butter and sugar and added it to the bakery’s bread mix. Ughetto’s sweet bread became popular and the ailing bakery soon began to see better times, which pleased Adalgisa. To continue pleasing her, one day near Christmas, he added candied peel and raisins to the mix and the popularity of his bread surpassed everything the bakery had ever produced before – in fact it became so popular that his family relented and gave their permission for the couple to marry.Italy Magazine
And so, panettone has become a cherished tradition for my family. We eat it almost daily from December 1st until the last week of December. Panettone! Panettone! Panettone!