Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without Italy’s king of cakes. Hours spent recipe perfecting and leavening, the panettone is no longer purely an Italian holiday icon. Seen lining the shelves of high-end grocery stores, coffee shops and supermarkets around the world, the elegant height of this ultimately simple yeast cake adds a stylish flourish to the perfect Christmas.
It was back in the early 20th century when two Milanese bakers began to produce panettoni in large quantities for the rest of Italy and in the 1920s Angelo Motta revolutionized the traditional cake by implementing the quintessential domed shape through making the dough rise three times for nearly 20 hours before baking. The recipe was adapted shortly afterwards by Gioacchino Alemagna, who also loaned his name to his leavened goods. The stiff competition between the two brands led to the industrial production of the panettone, which resulted in Nestlé taking over both businesses in the late Nineties before Verona-based Bauli went on to acquire them from the Swiss multinational. By the end of World War II, panettoni had entered the mainstream and became affordable for all wallets. Back in 2019, a campaign was launched to secure protected designation of origin and denominazione di origine controllata status for the panettone, but it has not yet borne fruit.
However, the oldest and most reliable historical record of the panettone dates to 1599 in an expenditure ledger belonging to Pavia’s Borromeo College. On December 23 of that year, costs appeared for five pounds of butter, two pounds of raisins and three ounces of spices given to the baker to make 13 “loaves” to be given to college students on Christmas Day. The first recorded association of panettone with Christmas can be found in the writings of the 18th-century illuminist Pietro Verri. He refers to it as pan de ton (“luxury bread”). The -one suffix bigs up the epithet, meaning a large loaf of bread.
How to bake the perfect panettone
Patience is required to make the perfect panettone. The proofing process alone takes several days to give the cake its hallmark light and fluffy characteristics. Ingredients usually include candied fruits and raisins, although creative flourishes such as chocolate, hazelnut cream and almonds now appear on the ever-expanding panettone market. On Christmas Day, home cooks add the decadence of a sweet sauce, such as mascarpone cream, made from eggs, mascarpone and a sweet liqueur; chantilly cream (cream and icing sugar); and zabaglione (egg yolks, marsala and sugar). Savoury panettoni (panettone gastronomico) are a showstopper starter, using a classic panettone—strictly no sultanas or candied fruit—which is sliced horizontally and filled with delights like smoked salmon, Parma ham, tapenade, prawn cocktail, Olivier salad and soft cheeses like stracciatella.
The best of the panettoni 2023
While supermarket shelves are already piled high with the king of cakes, Florence and Tuscany’s bakeries are just beginning to bake their artisanal panettoni. Watch out for the finest bakes from Michelin-starred establishments Ristorante Santa Elisabetta and Four Seasons Florence as well as La Leggenda dei Frati‘s chocolate and pear panettone. If you’re looking for a savoury option, we are impressed by Manuel Maiorano‘s (of Pizzeria La Fenice, in Pistoia) Tuscan cheese and salami variation, who, alongside others, presented his panettone at a recent event organized by Italian food magazine Il Forchettiere. Nationwide, aficionados can also rely on the outcome of the Panettone Day judging panel, which divides the cakes into three categories: Traditional (won this year by Domenico Napoleone from Rieti), Creative (Bartolo Carbe’, from Siracusa in Sicily) and Chocolate (Francesco Bertolini, from San Bonifacio, near Varese). Catalin Varela of The Celiac in Italy blog prefers Nutrifree and “other good gluten-free options include Motta, Bauli and Piaceri Mediterranei”, while the lactose intolerant can look to the likes of fine bakery Iginio Massari and Maina.
The Florentine‘s panettone taste test
As dedicated documenters of all things Tuscan, we tried three panettoni in their 2023 versions ahead of the holiday season.
Pretty as a picture with its classic sugar strands and whole almonds, this quintessential one-kilo panettone from the Oltrarno’s Pasticceria Artigianale Buonamici had just been baked after 72 hours of leavening when it arrived at our magazine offices. Established in 1949, the family-owned bakery combines flour, butter, candied fruit (orange and citron), sultanas, egg yolk, sourdough, superfine sugar, Bourbon vanilla, honey and salt to produce the lightest and most buttery of confections. Also available in chocolate, chocolate and pistachio, and salted caramel versions. Available locally from via dell’Orto 27R.
As stylish as the cafè (est. 1733) in piazza della Repubblica, the dusty blue and gold round tin entices with embossed Art Deco accents. Inside, the one-kilo traditional, almond, chocolate or pistachio panettone promises boundless joy in Caffè Gilli plastic wrap topped with gold and brown ribbons. Sticky, sugary and loaded with candied fruit, there’s an aristocratic allure to the traditional version (43 euro), while the chocolate variety (45 euro) rocks an international vibe and tastes like a slow-release brownie. Local and international delivery available.
A squat red cardboard box bears the Quarrata-based Fratelli Lunardi’s fun contemporary design. We know this one’s a chocolate panettone (45 euro) thanks to the gold embossed lettering. Lift the lid to read the instructions: Savour it at room temperature and how the gianduia cracks! It’s a low panettone weighing in at 800 grams and takes two days to make given the sourdough base, wrapped in plastic film printed with the bakery’s logo. Having come third in the 2021 Panettone World Cup, we’re delighted by the generosity of the chocolate: the gianduia glaze, the shavings and the pure decadence of the hand-chopped 60 percent dark chocolate within. Classic, glazed and pandori are also on offer. Local and international delivery available.
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