Natale without panettone would be considered a sad Christmas indeed for any Italian family, but in Milano, where this special bread was born, it’s inconceivable. In the few weeks before Christmas, hundreds of millions of panettoni are sold all over Italy, and throughout Europe, as well as in North America. That famous brightly colored box—oversized, festive and elegant—is an immediate cue that the holidays are here.
Before industrialization, panettone (literally, “big bread”) was made in local bakeries or at home, and it was a laborious, time-consuming task. Traditionally, the father, or head of the household, would mark a cross at the top of the tall loaf of sweetened bread before it was placed in the oven, as a good omen for the coming year. And, still to this day, panettone retains a special aura, bringing a feeling of love, luck and joy whenever it is offered.
The classic panettone weighs about a kilo (that is, 2.2 lbs) and is about 8 inches high. The special dough, similar to sourdough, slowly ferments and rises for at least 12 hours, but the leavening process can last much longer. Panettone ingredients are usually flour, eggs, butter, yeast, dried raisins, candied oranges, citron and lemon zest. Throughout Italy, bakeries still prepare it daily during the Christmas season for their clients. The quality of bakery-made panettone is usually excellent and is reflected in the price. But the industrial, or commercially produced panettone that is for sale in supermarkets, is undeniably delicious as well. Though called a bread in Italy, panettone is eaten as a dessert or a snack; because it’s not overly sweet, the long slivers—the tall cake is cut in slices from top to bottom—can be gobbled up with guiltless abandon.
Panettone is eaten during the many days of Christmas celebrations—which last more than 10 days or so in Italy—and the New Year’s festivities. Like the Christmas fruitcakes so commonly offered by relatives, friends, colleagues and neighbors in the U.S.—so ubiquitous as to seem to magically propagate on their own every holiday season—it is not uncommon for an Italian family to receive as many as ten or twenty loaves of panettoni during the holidays. Many of these cakes are then passed on to other neighbors, or donated to less fortunate households or charities. Yet, like a favorite family relative who appears every Christmas, familiarity does not diminish the appreciation most people feel when panettone is offered—often brought along as a gift when invited for lunch or dinner during the holiday season, and presented with a good bottle of spumante or prosecco.
Traditionally, panettone is served after the enormous Christmas day feast or on Santo Stefano (that is, December 26th, a national holiday in Italy)—but also on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. There is just one caveat: apart from kids, very few have any room left for dessert after these feasts. Therefore, panettone is mostly eaten in the mornings with caffe latte or cappuccino, or as a snack with an afternoon espresso. In the U.S.—where sugar content and calorie counts are no deterrents—French Toast panettone is a breakfast favorite during the Christmas season.
Gift your favorite foodie some of our citrusy sweet bread this holiday with our Panettone.
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