Panettone, the Big Bread

Christmas in, Christmas out, every Italian grocer/baker in the city stockpiles panettone (pronounced “pan-e-ton-ay”). Bosa and Cioffi’s, Vancouver’s most familiar Italian food shops, carry a few panettone year round, but come Yuletide, box upon pyramid-shaped box of the airy, raisin-studded celebratory bread dangles from the rafters or crowds the shelves. Sundry artisanal bakeries have adopted and adapted panettone, too. Vancouver’s Terra Breads fashions two types of panettone: one a dense, dried-fruit version and one packed with chocolate and cherries. These come in regular and mini sizes and are not only available for Christmas but also for Valentine’s, Mother’s Day and Thanksgiving.

I was surprised to discover that little had been written on this sweet subject. (Check out the indexes of culinary magazines and cookbooks, and “pancakes” flip right into “pan-frying.”) Elizabeth David (Italian Food) nods briefly in panettone’s direction calling it “a kind of brioche containing sultanas,” but she provides no recipe. And my go-to for all old world fare, Elizabeth Luard, says nary a word about the bread. Website searches, save Wikipedia, turned up precious little, too. I was lucky enough, on a recent visit to Ontario, to spy Made in Italy, Food and Stories by Georgio Locatelli on my sister’s bookshelf and gleaned some information there.

There is little doubt that panettone’s lineage is Milanese. In 1919, a Milanese baker named Angelo Motta began baking the airy bread en masse for fellow townsfolk. Six years later, another local baker, Gioacchino Alemagna, went mano-a-mano with Motta, providing stiff competition. Nestlé gobbled up and amalgamated both labels synonymous with panettone in 1990. During the run-up to Christmas, Motta/Alemagna, marketing globally, distributes more than 250,000 panetonnes throughout Italy alone.

Panettone means simply “big bread.” But more romantic notions surround panettone’s name. Reference Waverly Root’s Food of Italy or Locatelli’s Made in Italy, (or just Google panettone) and you’ll find a tall tale or two. My favourite is about a nobleman who pretended to be a baker’s apprentice and made a “huge, sumptuous bread” (pan) for “Toni,” a baker’s daughter, with whom he fell in love.

Waverly Root claims “pannetone is the world’s best accompaniment for breakfast coffee. It remains fresh for a long time—I don’t know why.” True. Panetonne’s longevity is puzzling. Once I forgot to put a commercially bought one in the freezer. About two weeks’ later, I found it sitting atop the deep freeze unharmed and unaltered, just a bit dry—a perfect building block for a trifle, bread-and-butter pudding and French toast. Traditionally, three two-hour rises give the bread its airy texture. My brother-in-law’s mom, Rena DeClerico, likes to set the dough on the kitchen counter for one long overnight rise. I doubt the mass-marketed brands derive their light texture from any careful monitoring. I read somewhere glucose assists in the lightness and durability of mass-marketed panettone.

Not a fan of industrial-strength panettone, a Tuscan friend, Bert Ferri, bakes his own. “It was not a local tradition and my mother did not make it. I was inspired by stollen, the German fruit bread. I love the stuff, but being Italian I gave making panetonne a try. I guess my concoction resembles a bit of both.” I can vouch for Bert’s excellent adaptation, having receiving one as a gift. Owner/baker at MIX the Bakery, Rose Concepcion, says she prefers stollen, claiming, “I like the heavy fruit-to-bread ratio and the marzipan centre makes for a far more interesting bread.”

Methods for baking panettone sway from easy to advanced. As with many recipes, there can be any number of riffs on the base line, in this case flour, sugar, butter, eggs and yeast. Blanched almonds and candied pineapple dot the Americanized recipe in the Joy of Cooking. A number of modern recipes jazz up the bread with chocolate or liqueur such as limoncello. A ridiculous online formula starts with commercial panetonne, dousing it with orange-flavoured liqueur, cream, nuts and heaven knows what else. And in From Biba’s Italian Kitchen (William Morrow Cookbooks, 1995), Biba Caggiano offers a fine, medium-effort recipe, confining the fruit to dried citron and Madeira-soaked sultanas.

As I write this, Biba’s panettone (I took the liberty of adding a few chopped dried apricots), thrice risen, puffs up in the oven, its golden dome peeking from the Melitta coffee tin. Baking panetonne in empty coffee tins turns out a fine dome. Bundt or tube pans also work well.

As for the sweet bread’s shelf life? From the look of things, I doubt it will be put to the test.

Find panettone in Victoria at:

Fol Epi

101-398 Harbour Rd (Dockside Green)

The Italian Bakery

3197 Quadra St.


2272 Oak Bay Ave.

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