Panettone (Italian Christmas Bread)
During the Christmas season, Americans enjoy decorated sugar cookies, the English have plum or Christmas pudding and the Italians have panettone, a sweet Milanese bread with hints of citrus, vanilla, and candied fruit.
Panettone is a staple of Italian festivities dating back to the Middle Ages. Back then, people celebrated Christmas by replacing their traditional daily bread with a richer one. The actual English translation is “big bread“; from “panetto”, meaning dough, and the suffix “one” meaning large. Panettone is just that, a big sweet, flavorful bread.
The Panettone Legend
The creation of Panettone has a sweet legend attached to it. A noble Milanese falcon trainer named Ughetto fell in love with Adalgisa, the daughter of the town baker. Ughetto disliked watching Adalgaisa work tirelessly at the family’s struggling bakery. To help, Ughetto disguised himself as a peasant and offered to work at the bakery for free so Adalgisa didn’t have to.
While working at the bakery, Ughetto secretly purchased butter, sugar, and eggs (expensive luxury items at the time) to enrich the bakery’s bread. During Christmas, Ughetto added sweet candied citrus peel and raisins to the bread. The popularity of this sweet bread saved the bakery and took Adalgisa’s hand in marriage.
Traditionally cylindrical in shape with a cupola (domed) top, a Panettone loaf is always a show stopper. It should always be taller than it is wide, with a soft and airy interior beneath a dark exterior. The most common Panettone flavor is a sweet citrus fruit similar to a fruit cake, but there are numerous variations.
Italians typically eat Panettone in the morning with coffee, but some prefer it as a mid-day snack with a glass of wine. Others choose to have it after dinner as dolce with a sweet sparkling Moscato.
For Italians, Panettone is a common host/hostess gift during the festive season. In the states, as early as November, supermarkets start to display the commercially made loaves. This specialty panettone decked out in elaborate boxes and bows can often command a hefty price tag during the season. But because of the prep time, many Italians choose not to make their own panettone, opting for the ease of store-bought ones instead.
For years I’ve passed Panettone piled high on shelves during the holidays and been tempted to make my own. Like homemade bagels, this was a bit of an endeavor to find the taste and texture I preferred, but I found it and I have to say, I’m pleased. A special Panettone pan is the most common way to make this festive bread but is not required.
For my recipe, I use a 7-inch springform pan and parchment paper which works just as well. The traditional way of serving Panettone is to slice the loaf with a serrated knife as you would a cake, to get triangular wedges. My family likes it best slightly warm with a generous smear of sweet butter.