By Robert Wemischner
While its original recipe has evolved over the years, panettone’s popularity remains a constant. Rich in eggs and butter, this dome-shaped, natural yeast-raised bread has captured the hearts of Italophiles, holiday celebrants and lovers of sweets worldwide.
According to accounts by Carol Field, the late cookbook author and authority on all things in the Italian kitchen, the phenomenon of commercially made panettone arose in 1930s Milan, when Angelo Motta founded his eponymous company dedicated to producing this airy, porous sweet bread. Motta began the tradition of using natural yeast and a cylindrical form of his own design to make the dazzlingly tall, domed panettone, which has been going strong ever since.
More than one hundred years before that, the original centuries-old recipe — which used raisins and fruit peel — was revamped to promote the bread’s heritage, with bakers adding red cherries and green citron to reflect the colors in the Italian flag. Those bits of color may have lost their patriotic meaning, but not their place, in the bread; this style of panettone piles up in beautiful boxes at the doors of Italian bakeries and markets everywhere around the holidays —even Whole Foods has gotten into the act.
But as with all things mass-produced, there are always those who seek to create a more memorable and distinctive version by hand in smaller batches.
Take, for instance, Jeff Michaud, chef-partner with the Amici Hospitality Group in Philadelphia, who has lived in Italy, married an Italian and declares himself a purist when it comes to the delicate, often challenging-to-make panettone. “After trial and error over four or five years, we came up with a recipe that works,” he says. “Simplicity is where we want to go. For the most part, we remain true to tradition — only adding a twist here and there with the inclusion of chocolate or hazelnut paste.”
Developing flavor over three days is key to the panettone’s tender and light texture. “We get the lievito madre, or starter, going on the first day; after it’s fully ripe, on the second day, we mix up the dough, adding eggs, butter, flour and sugar,” Chef Michaud says. “This dough then triples overnight during a cool flavor- and texture-building rise [in the refrigerator]. Finally, on the third day, the dough is given an intensive mix for about 25 minutes using a paddle [before] the dried fruit and housemade candied citrus are added. The dough is then placed into pans collared with parchment, allowing it to rise to its full height for as much as five hours before being baked. Oven spring kicks in to give it the final lift.”
There’s more to the process. After baking, the loaves are traditionally impaled with metal skewers and arranged to hang upside down on racks to help them resist the effects of gravity and retain their height and airiness. Echoing the importance of this step, Joseph Settepani, executive pastry chef, Bruno’s Bakery in Manhattan and Staten Island, New York, advises, “Inverting the bread during the cooling process is an absolute must. [It] is essential because — even though the bread may look heavy — it acts [like] a soufflé and likes to deflate quickly, so, to keep its beautiful peak, you must invert it.”
When it comes to modern panettone innovation, he continues, “We have many different flavors that we sell, and we are constantly trying to push the limits with panettone. Last year, I experimented with yuzu-infused chocolate from Valhrona and took out 80% of the water in the dough and replaced it with fresh strawberry puree. Let me say, it tasted like a strawberry lemonade bread. It was unbelievable.”
At the bakery, holiday panettone-making entails large-scale production with artisanal ingredients. Chef Settepani’s team produces, on average, more than 2,000 breads each season — from the traditional citron-and-bleached-raisins version to one with chocolate, fig and pistachio, and another with pecans and cranberries. “It can drive you mad in a way, because of the length of the process, and if you mess up one step, you mess up almost 24 hours of work,” Chef Settepani says. “But with its growing popularity, it makes me feel that all the hard work is paying off.”
Emanuele Alaimo, owner of Villabate Alba, a Sicilian bakery in Brooklyn, New York, takes great pride in his panettone, but adds a whimsical approach, shaping the dough into gingerbread-like houses that are iced and decorated.
Chef Casey Shiller, CEPC, baker-instructor at St. Louis Community College in Missouri, takes pains to teach baking students the ins and outs of this demanding bread. “We let the students see that fermentation doesn’t apply only to savory sourdough or traditional lean doughs,” he says. “Favorably yeasty flavors can be carefully developed over time in a highly enriched bread such as panettone. The fruits we put into it are given a boozy bath first in marsala or amaretto. You can take your cues from Milanese tradition and serve a warmed slice with cream or, even better, fresh mascarpone.”
Chef Michaud says he will sometimes push the envelope with his panettone as well, turning it into a French toast and serving it with gelato.
Whether one takes a purist approach or creates a playful rendition, panettone’s ability to bring a little joy to the holiday table never fails.