A natale puoi.
Christmas in Italy means, amongst other things, panettone.
With chocolate, orange peel, crema fillings or almond glaze, this tall, fluffy Italian cake is a quintessential part of festivities.
Some claim panettone dates back to ancient Roman times where a leavened cake was sweetened with honey but there's a beautiful legend that begs to be told, however believable or not. It begins in the King's Court of Ludovico il Moro in Milan in the 15th Century, incidentally, it begins in the kitchen. After allegedly burning his traditional Christmas cake, the head chef desperately accepts a suggestion from Toni, a scullery boy, to jolly up some simple bread dough with eggs and butter, adding candied fruits and raisins and creating a Christmas 'panetto' for the auspicious celebration. When the lords are duly impressed and query what it is, someone kindly shouts out the kitchen hand, "It's Toni's bread" - il pan di Toni.
400 years later two bakers from Milan toy with the idea of fashioning the denser bread into something rather fluffy. In 1919 Angelo Motta decides to let the dough rise three times for almost 20 hours which creates the dolce's height and domed top. Six years later, Gioacchino Alemagna becomes stiff competition to Motta and the two bakers add la guepiere - an iconic dark brown and gold paper mould which resists burning and provides panettone's circular shape.
The bakers' fierce production leads to industrial baking and soon the popular panettone drops in price becoming accessible to all and a Christmas staple in Italian homes.
Nestlé takes over both brands in the late 1990s and since then Bauli, from Verona, has acquired both Motta and Alemagna.
There are many brands these days, each with their own characteristics, there are also many ads and every Christmas Italy dutifully digs out the old favourite from Bauli we all know and love. This classic TV advertisement features the cutest little boy waiting for Santa by the fireplace. He places a soft panettone under the chimney ready for him to land on saying, "Buttati che è morbido!" Jump down, it is soft!
It's officially Christmas and we walk around with our favourite song stuck in our heads: "A Natale puoi fare quello che non puoi fare mai."
Panettone means large panetto - a loaf-like cake.
Panettone dough is proved three times over several days to give the cake its spongyness. It's essentially a sourdough, made with lievito madre - mother yeast starter, meaning panettone is lighter on the stomach and aids digestion due to its number of healthy strains of bacteria. The sourdough starter and hours of proving contribute to panettone's spongy, soft consistency and variety of sizes of air pockets.
Originally a simple bread-like Christmas cake with added candied fruits, lemon zest and raisins added dry, these days we find all kinds of glamorous panettoni versions from pistacchio to pear and chocolate or marron glacé chestnut fillings and Sicilian almonds but the simple question still remains: Con o senza canditi - With or without candied orange peel? Not as popular with Italian children, they undoubtedly ask this first before accepting a slice, or shall we say wedge?
Panettone is sliced from top to bottom to create large wedges which look dauntingly large, but aren't in the end, due to their airy nature. Often found cut into chunks at a staff Christmas do or handed around in restaurants after dessert with glasses of Prosecco or Moscato, t's not unusual for a bowl of mascarpone crema or zabaione to be placed nearby. Zabaione is a liqueur-based egg yolk crema, popular at Carnival in fritelle - tiny doughnuts. This all being said, the classic mascarpone crema combo undeniably belongs to Pandoro.
Panettone's picturesque partner.
Pandoro is something quite special. Similar in size and time of year, but different in shape, texture and taste, also more modern, invented in 1894. She is delicate and vanillary, but to top it off, she is star-shaped. You're either a pandoro or a panettone person (or both) and pandoro is 9 times out of 10 a hit with anyone under the age of 16. There's no candied orange peel, no raisins and guess what? Pandoro comes with her own little bag of icing sugar to be traditionally sprinkled into the cake's packet and shaken together, dusting the pretty pandoro completely in snowy white, you can see why she's very popular.
Pandoro is generally sliced vertically, but can also be sliced horizontally, to make stars varying in size that can then be layered with mascarpone crema to form a Christmas tree shaped cake, of all beautiful things!
Inspired by the ancient Veronese cake, Nadalin, Pandoro is an eight poined star.
There has been a significant movement away from mass-produced Panettone in the last couple of years, with many bakeries and pastry shops selling quality, artisanal produce, specialising in exceptional ingredients and personalised gourmet flavours. Panettone is often presented as a beautifully wrapped gift, tied in fancy ribbon and Pandoro is traditionally sold in a cone-shaped box - both celebrate the glamour and style of this festive season, maintaining timeless tradition but continually striving towards fluffy, contemporary heights.
The Baking Process.
- Panettone dough's rising agent is a sourdough starter. While proving, eggs, lemon, sugar, raisins, sultanas, candied peel and butter are added to the dough at different stages.
- After 12 hours, the dough has tripled in size and is divided, rolled and placed into moulds. A cross is made on the top of each one.
- Many versions use la guepiere - a circular paper mould, to increase height and give Panettone its shape. If required, the unbaked cake is covered in a sugary glaze at this point.
- It is now ready to be baked for an hour at 190 degrees, although cooking times will depend on the ingredients used.
- Once baked, panettone is hung upside down to avoid the tall cake from collapsing, until it has cooled completely, then it can be packaged. Maina, a popular panettone producer, has used the same mother yeast since 1964 and claims 60 hours of production are needed from beginning to end. Their slogan is, "Piano, piano. Buono, buono."
Slowly, slowly, because good things take time.
Are you a Pandoro or Panettone person, or both?
Christmas in Italy - sit down at an Italian christmas table with us in Venice, Cortina, Palermo and Genova - blog post coming soon!