Have you ever wondered why there are foods that just stick around forever, and even if we know how it tastes, we still can’t wait for that first bite? And then there are the ones that just come and go? Why do we never go crazy and share the recipes of molecular transparent broth spaghetti made by Ferran Adria (rumor has it that he made it) but are ready to kill for a slice of perfect panettone? Is it really because it is that good or it is also because there’s something more to it? Tradition, the joy of sharing something so ancient, the desire to be part of that long history, the taste of childhood or just a desire to be.
There’s nothing more tempting than the aroma of a freshly-opened panettone bag (sometimes I buy panettone just because of that and leave the eating part to someone else, and there's always someone to do that job). It bursts with the sweetest, tempting aromas of eggs, vanilla, sugar, butter, and spices, be it classical panettone filled with raisins and peel or the new variations with chocolate or chestnut cream, zabaione or caramel, figs, or hazelnut spread. Today, when the world is filled with an endless selection of sweets, there’s still nothing more sacred and traditional than a slice of panettone with prosecco for dessert after a heavy meal in Italy. One might call it a simple bread, but those who have even had the slightest interest in the process will tell you – there’s nothing easy at all.
As with everything today, the challenge is to find a good panettone – where eggs are fresh and not powdered, where milk flows into the big “bowls” like rivers, where butter is used and not margarine, and all ingredients used are real and truly the best and not the cheapest from shady markets. I have had my share of not-so-special and dry versions of panettone, but I have also had the pleasure of enjoying the purest taste of panettone, where piece after piece, you feel more and more like you’re in heaven (I wonder if they serve panettone for Christmas in heaven). The pieces, if you just tear them off, come apart like cotton candy in the most perfect strips of dough, the vanilla overtakes your whole being, and the sugar takes you by the hand begging to just dig in – and it all does.
Believe it or not, there’s a legend about panettone and how it happened to be here today, and it starts in 15th century Italy, in Milan. To make it more special, it starts as a love story in which a rich man falls in love with poor girl from a bakery. Was it her father’s or did her father worked in one? That is a question, but there’s no question about the fact that this rich man started to work in the bakery just to be close to her. Oh, wait, there’s one version in which there was a bakery that belonged to a man and all was going well until the day when another bakery opened next door that enthralled the first man’s clients. Moreover, the baker got ill, and the father of the daughter had to work through the night, just when the lovers were meeting at the bakery. So, to continue the love affair, the young man had to start working at the bakery.
They made a simple bread, but to make an impression on the future wife’s father, the romantic Ugneto (that’s his name) sold his hawks and bought butter to add to the dough. And it was a success. This was followed by adding some sugar, then eggs, and closer to Christmas, he added raisins, and that was the moment that panettone was born, to be adored even six centuries later. At that time, the duke of Milan, Ludovico il Moro Sforza, named the bread pan del Ton (or Toni's bread).
There’s yet another story, still involving the famous Toni, who was a cook’s helper and who invented panettone, only because the court chef actually had no dessert to offer and something had to be done. Toni made bread with all the bits and pieces he had, and since everyone loved it, it was named il pan de Toni (Toni’s bread).
Writer and gastronomic historian Stanislao Porcio would argue about that love story and the birth of panettone, as he has found the first historic traces of panettone in 1470 in the notes of duke Ludoviko il Moro Sforca’s home tutor, who described events on the 24th of December. He says that the bread was shared by the fireplace after lighting a huge log that burned until the 6th of January (Epiphany). The bread they shared was made from wheat flour, which was an expensive and special thing to use. As years passed, the recipe was supplemented with eggs, butter, sugar, and raisins, which (according to Vocabolario milanese-italiano by Franchesko Kerubini) happened in 1839. Yeast was added only in 1853 (according to Nuovo cuoco milanese economico).
It took many centuries to really understand the importance of this Christmas bread/cake, and only in the beginning of the 20th century did producers like Mota start to make them, large scale, and changing the shape to a much higher and cylindrical one, proofing them for 20 hours to make them three times bigger and lighter. Some Italians might remember that for some time, Mota was synonymous with panettone, but soon others joined, such as Gioacchino Alemagna in 1925 (there is still some panettone on the market under that name). Later, both of them were bought out by none other than Nestle, and some years later, moved into the hands of purple-packaged Bauli.
Anatomy of panettone
Nowadays, the classic version is 30 cm high, baked into a paper molds, which is hard to take off. Italians love sweets and they like to sere the sweet panettone with prosecco, hot chocolate, or liquor (God forbid it’s not sweet enough!). They also serve it with whipped cream and fresh berries or mascarpone and jam. For me, just a slice of panettone and espresso is enough to enjoy its beauty, as it is.
Not all are good
Since there are around 80 million panettones baked every year, the majority are far from the real thing, so when buying your next treat, be sure to read the label carefully –way too often there is margarine added instead of butter, egg powder instead of eggs, and the list goes on. The Association of Italian Confectionary Industries is working to protect the panettone, and then we will see who gets nominated and who does not.
Story and pictures: Signe Meirane
Camera: Sony Alpha 7s