Panettone is by far one of the most popular Christmas desserts in Italy. Grocery store aisles and ceilings are festooned with hundreds of trapezoidal boxes of panettone during the Christmas season. Lately, due to an influx of South American immigrants and a strong Italian-American community, Panettone has become more popular in the United States and can be found in grocery stores across the country. But what is panettone, and why is it all the rage during the Christmas season? And how is it served?
Hailing from Milan, panettone comes from the word pane meaning bread, and literally means large bread. It has murky origins. Although yeasted fruitcakes have been eaten since the Roman Empire, what we now know as panettone probably originated in the Middle Ages. One legend has it that a cook for Ludovico il Moro was making a Christmas dessert and forgot it in the oven until it almost burned. Toni, the cook’s scullery boy, suggested he try using whatever was left in the pantry, which was butter, orange zest, raisins, eggs, and some flour. The cook agreed, and when the cook served it, he called it the “Pane di Ton.” Luckily for the cook, it was a hit with il Moro and his guests, and it became a tradition ever since. Another legend states that Friar Antonio was a big fan of his pane and famous for always wearing his clerical hat, leading to the creation of panettone in the shape of his hat. Originally panettone was served to noblemen, royalty, and clergy, mass production of the popular dessert began in Milan in 1919 when baker Angelo Motta industrialized the panettone making process. No matter how panettone originated, it’s enjoyed by millions of people in Italy and around the world during the Christmas season.
Panettone is a yeasted cake made from flour, butter, eggs, sugar, vanilla, and a raising agent called biga. Biga is a bread starter similar to sourdough starter made from flour, yeast, yogurt, and water. Panettone is notorious for being one of the most technically difficult baked goods, requiring so much labor and skill that famed baker Roy Shvartzapel calls it the “Mount Everest of baking.”
There are several reasons why panettone is so difficult to make. The first reason is that it can take up to five days to make a single loaf of panettone. The second reason is that the yeast has to be fed on a regular basis, and the dough has to be checked on once every twelve hours in order to make sure it’s rising properly. If the dough isn’t isn’t regularly fed, it can prevent the panettone from rising properly. The third reason is that making panettone involves a lot of advanced techniques that can be challenging for even the most seasoned professional bakers. There’s no room for error, and there’s no way to hide mistakes when making panettone. Finally, panettone dough can easily be ruined by any number of external factors like temperature, humidity, and acidity, to name a few. But this labor and skill is worth it in the end and results in one of the most delicious, popular, and well-known Italian desserts that’s been enjoyed around the world for over a century.
Traditionally, panettone is cut with a serrated knife and served in slices (though we wouldn’t blame you if you decided to eat one all in one sitting!) after dinner on Christmas or for breakfast with a cappuccino (before 10 am, of course.) It can also be eaten for New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. In Milan, many families save a piece of the Christmas panettone to eat it on the following February 3 for the Festival of San Biagio.
But if you don’t have an extra five days, a lifetime of baking knowledge and professional experience in the kitchen, or the expensive specialized tools required to make panettone at home, there are plenty of panettone makers specialized in taking on this labor-intensive and skillful work every year and sell the fruit of their labor worldwide. Traditionally, panettone has candied fruits that include raisins, candied orange peel, and candied cherries, but you can find panettone in a variety of flavors today, including chocolate chip, nutella, and pistachio cream. If you can’t wait for Christmas to get your hands on a slice of panettone, it can be found year-round in specialty Italian grocery stores online.
If you’re looking for a traditional panettone with candied fruits, Bauli has been making panettone and other classic Italian desserts since 1922. Battistero also makes classic panettone that will impress even the most discerning panettone purists in your life. Not a fan of candied fruits? Not a problem! There are plenty of other delicious options to choose from! For chocolate lovers, Gran Ducale offers a chocolate chip panettone that’s sure to please every chocolate lover. Il Vecchio Forno (meaning the old oven) also makes a luscious chocolate cream-filled panettone. If you prefer your panettone to have a more Southern Italian flavor profile, you’ll love the Tre Marie's Pearl of the South which is made with semi-candied lemon peel and almond paste. Il Vecchio Forno also has lemon cream panettone and candied lemons for the lemon lover in your life. Looking for something a little nuttier? Try the Grand Ducale's pistachio panettone that’s filled with pistachio cream and chocolate chips. There are even gluten-free panettone made by Borgo de’ Medici, so everyone can enjoy a bit of this Italian classic dessert, regardless of their dietary restriction. No matter who you’re having your panettone with, the Italian food Online Store has the perfect panettone for you and your loved ones.
No matter what time of the year it is, or who you’re eating the panettone with, panettone is sure to make the perfect addition to your table. Whether you’re looking for the perfect light breakfast to enjoy with a coffee or an indulgent after-dinner treat, panettone is the perfect confectionary delight that will make your entire day or night a whole lot sweeter.