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Handcrafted Panettone: how does it differ from industrial ones?
Panettone is much more than a Christmas cake: it is the symbol of Italian Christmas. It has an amazing evocative power and, when it is truly delicious, it is able to rewind time and recall good memories and family traditions.
However, Panettone is a trend, too, and, unfortunately, we often see the name Panettone across boxes with poor-quality ingredients and appalling flavour combinations. Out of all the Panettone that you may find out there, only a tiny percentage is worthy of its name.
But how can we pick the good ones? What makes a Panettone good? One word: handcraft. This word implies many things: choosing the right ingredients, long processing times, morally responsible manufacturers and a fair price.
Let’s see how we can tell apart handmade Panettone and the factory-made ones. We will be able to choose a high-quality cake, we will enjoy Christmas and last but not least, we will support small manufacturers baking incredible masterpieces with such great passion.
Choosing the ingredients
The first rule of a handmade Panettone is only prime-quality ingredients, no compromises or shortcuts. This means that the ingredient list of a truly handcrafted Panettone should never include mixtures, semi-finished products, replacements or substitutes for the sourdough. No cheating here. Either they use sourdough or we are not interested in their product.
Mono- and diglycerides, preservatives, emulsifiers, additives and synthetic flavourings are also forbidden. There shouldn’t be anything to hide if they only use the best raw materials.
No clarified butter, a centrifuged butter where caseins are removed, which is very easy to preserve and to handle; no margarine (are you crazy?!), no powdered eggs. Only natural ingredients: fresh eggs, fresh butter, flour, candied fruit, honey, sugar, water, sourdough and that’s it.
Pay attention to candied fruit; if the pieces all look exactly the same, there is something weird going on. Handmade candied fruit is not mass-produced, but rather cut by hand and, as such, it should look irregular. You should also be able to see the candied fruit and raisins straight away, which should be scattered all around the surface of the slice. And there should be a lot of them. Never mind if some people don’t like them – that’s how traditional Panettone is made; take it or leave it.
We at Italy Bite went the extra mile. For our assortment, we picked Opera Waiting, a very creative and genuine confectionery. To make this Panettone, they only use extremely fresh and organic ingredients which make for a one-of-a-kind flavour.
Texture and moisture: Panettone should be stretchy
Handcrafted Panettone has an amber and golden colour on the outside and a bright yellow colour on the inside thanks to the eggs and, more importantly, it should never have the same consistency as bread. It shouldn’t crumble upon cutting and it should almost be melting when you bite into it. When the product is made to state-of-the-art standards with the right ingredient ratio and most of all a well-managed leavening, Panettone should have a stretchy consistency.
As far as moisture is concerned, the dough should neither be too dry nor too moist. When a Panettone is too heavy, it may be in part due to underbaking, but it mainly means that the yeast was not strong enough to make the dough rise. It’s no easy feat!
That’s the most important step. Natural leavening affects the quality of the end product and it is the trickiest step that changes both consistency and taste. Remember that sourdough starter is actually alive, since it contains yeasts and bacteria proliferating.
No two sourdough starters are the same, because the microflora they contain changes according to the flour, water and environment. Even climate conditions can greatly affect rising.
Being able to manage a natural leavening is an art and making high-rising, soft and stretchy handcrafted Panettone is extremely hard. The leavening specialist must continuously check the health of the sourdough starter, adding a pinch of flour or a drop of water and changing the room temperature if needed. The proof of success lies in the alveolar structure or porosity.
The secrets for a perfect alveolar structure
One look at Panettone is enough to understand if the natural leavening has worked or not. Take a look at the alveolar structure or porosity; it shouldn’t be too dense, like you would see in sandwich bread - and that’s often the case of factory-made Panettone – but it shouldn’t be too loose either.
It should ideally have inconsistent pores that are elongated and irregular and scattered in a rather vertical manner. Upon cutting, you should notice that the yeast wanted to rise. If the dough is kneaded too long, the pores will look flat, if it’s kneaded too little, it will probably break while it bakes.
Another thing: yeast does not work properly if it’s cold, hot, hungry, thirsty or tired. Perhaps now we realise how hard it is to make perfectly leavened, handcrafted Panettone with a perfect alveolar structure and an incredible flavour.
The fair price for a good product
A handcrafted Panettone cannot cost less than 30 € per kilo. No, it’s not too expensive given what it is worth. If it is properly made with prime-quality ingredients (good ingredients are expensive!) and sourdough, it cannot be any cheaper.
To create such a product, one needs time, passion and expert confectioners. Quality matters more than quantity and, unlike the large distribution, the distribution of handmade products still complies with the “ethical” principle of selling good products at a fair price.
Highlighting the differences between handcrafted Panettone and factory-made Panettone does not mean taking an elitist stance. We just want to truly enjoy Christmas dessert! A handmade Panettone is a gift to our guests, to ourselves and to prime-quality manufacturers.