Garlic (a lot of it), oil and anchovies: three ingredients make one of the most delicious sauces in the world. The...
Panettone: the story of an Italian Christmas legend
I’m sure that nine Italians out of ten cannot fathom Christmas without Panettone. The most traditional Christmas sweet bread comes in thousands of variations, but, whichever way you like it, it is still a must during the holidays.
It originated in Milan and we all agree on that. Some doubts were raised concerning how and when it originated, though. The story of Panettone is shrouded in a metaphorical and literal fog.
As far as the origin of this incredible cake is concerned, there are mainly two schools of thought.
The first school of thought is made of romantic people that affirm that Panettone was invented by a young man in love to win a girl over. Lord Ulivo degli Atellani, a falconer from Milan, fell head over heels for Adalgisa, the daughter of the baker. He decided to start working as an apprentice in her father’s bakery and wanted to bake something unforgettable that would win the hearts of father and daughter alike.
Flour, eggs, honey, sugar, butter, candied fruits, sultanas and, the main ingredient, a leavened dough. Adalgisa fell in love with Panettone and, to some extent, with Ulivo, too, and they ended up getting married.
However, there is a second story circulating around, about a hall boy saving the day of Ludovico Sforza’s cook. But let’s go in order.
The story is still set in Milan, at Ludovico Sforza’s court, somewhere between 1480 and 1499. It was Christmas and there was a feast happening at the Sforza Castle. The cook burned the cake and was, rightly so, devastated. The hall boy Toni came to the rescue and slightly improvising, he mixed sugar, eggs, candied fruits and raisins with leavened bread that he had found in the kitchen.
That might be the real story, since the name “Pan di Toni” (Toni’s bread) could have turned into “Panettone” over time.
Regardless of the story, artisan Panettone is now a part of Milan’s DNA. Alessandro Manzoni, a great Italian writer, loved it very much; a trusted baker would deliver Panettone to his house every year to thank him for having put the name of his bakery in his masterpiece “The Betrothed”.
We have talked about Christmas, but let’s not forget Saint Blaise. The legend narrates that Saint Blaise saved the life of a child that was choking on a fish bone; he, hence, became patron saint of the throat. On the 3rd of February, the day dedicated to this saint, people from Milan eat blessed Panettone as a protection against throat ailments.
We could say that it is an almost miraculous cake. But let’s unveil the secret behind its deliciousness.
How is artisan Panettone made
Panettone belongs to the family of leavened foods. They are neither easy nor quick to make, quite the contrary: a certain amount of experience, manual skills and an expert eye are required to understand all the steps that leavening entails.
In order to make it the right way, we need sourdough. And this is an entirely new topic to discover. Sourdough is alive and must be fed and nurtured. Successful baking a Panettone depends on it.
Since it is a cake with two doughs, sourdough is firstly mixed with flour and water, then sugar, butter and yolks are added little by little. It may seem easy, but it is not. If the dough does not form a proper gluten network, it’s not going to properly absorb the butter and eggs and ingredients will not bind.
If, on the contrary, everything goes well, the dough is going to leaven for the first time. It should be kept in a warm place for at least 12 hours and should triple in size.
Then, we are back at it again: we add the remaining flour, water, yolks, sugar and butter. Once the ingredients have bound, we also add honey, raisins, candied orange dices, citron, lemon zest, orange zest and a pinch of salt.
The dough is then shaped into a loaf and it is put into a special mould. The second leavening lasts for around 7 hours, then the dough is cooked.
Once the loaf is out of the oven, it is left to cool down upside down for at least 12 hours. This helps stabilising the ingredients and creating an absolutely unique flavour mix for which this exceptional sweet bread is known.
We have mentioned that Milan is the cradle of Panettone, but this sweet bread is delicious outside the region of Lombardy, too. In San Gimignano there is a confection lab called Opera Waiting that makes artisan Panettone that are in no way inferior to the Panettone from Milan.
This lab focuses on a careful selection of ingredients: ancient grain flour, sourdough, only Italian honey, vanilla from Madagascar. Artificial aromas, baking powder and emulsifiers are banned.
Their products are nothing short of excellent and they are much more than simply “artisan”. The best tradition is here combined with the best innovation: that’s why we can find not only the classic Panettone, but also some mouth-watering variations with chocolate, coffee and rum.
Christmas is almost here and we have come to the rescue; this year more than ever, we need a little bit of extra comfort and a delicious artisan Panettone is good for the soul and it is a moment of pure pleasure and real tradition.