In my Sicilian grandmother’s Christmas kitchen, panettone was always part of her traditional dinner. Back home in Italy, Christmas isn’t Christmas without panettone.
Panettone comes from the Italian word “paneto,” which means a small loaf cake. One legend has it that panettone dates back to the Roman Empire, when Romans sweetened their breads with fruit honey. But a more popular tale has a poor Milanese baker named Tonio creating this special bread to earn the dowry for his daughter to marry nobleman Ughetto Atellani.
As the story goes, Tonio tinkered with another popular bread recipe by adding dried grapes and candied fruits until he finally came up with a version that satisfied him. His delicious creation — known as pan de Tonio and synonymous with luxury — was an immediate commercial success and allowed the baker to ensure his daughter’s serendipitous match.
To many Americans, whether of Italian ancestry or not, panettone comes in a box or a tin and is a weeks-old, dried-out loaf of unrecognizable ingredients without culinary appeal. Supermarkets and drug stores have huge panettone displays which I encourage you to ignore. Even if the packaging says “Made in Italy,” it was baked at least a year ago and is loaded with preservatives. You can do better at home and with much less effort than you might think.
Although I took up bread baking about 20 years ago and was eager to give panettone a go, the recipes I searched always intimidated me — and with good reason. Consider Martha Stewart’s panettone, which includes 21 medium egg yolks and high-gluten flour. Immediately, I see three problems: 1) “Medium” eggs aren’t readily available; 2) What am I going to do with the left over 21 egg whites?; and 3) High-gluten flour isn’t a staple in my pantry. Other Stewart ingredients guaranteed to be next to impossible to find are Agrimontana candied orange peel, marcona almonds and maizena, whatever that is. Many recipes call for a rising process that can take two or three days.
But recently my go-to baking source, King Arthur Flour, published what it calls an American-style panettone recipe that turned out to be easy to make. Basically, it can be done in the three steps outlined below.
First, the night before soak 1 1/2 cups of dried fruit in either alcohol or orange juice. Prepare your biga by mixing 1 1/2 cups of all-purpose flour, 1/2 cup of tepid water and a pinch of instant yeast. Cover and let rest at least 12 hours, but longer is fine, too. (Hands-on time: less than 5 minutes.)
Second, the next morning, to the biga add three room temperature eggs, 10 ounces of softened butter, 2 1/2 cups of all-purpose flour, 1/2 cup granulated sugar, 5 teaspoons instant yeast, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, 2 teaspoons vanilla extract and 1 teaspoon each of lemon and orange zest. Use electric mixer to bring it all together, then place in a buttered bowl for about an hour or until it has almost doubled. (Hands-on time: 5 minutes.)
Then, knead in the dried fruit by hand and place into baking dish to rise a second time for about an hour. Place into a prepared baking dish and bake at 350 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes, checking for doneness (190 to 205 degrees) at the 30 minute mark. Use a special 7-inch tube pan, panettone papers or a plain loaf pan, my personal favorite. When it comes out of the oven, brush with melted butter.
I like the tube pan at Christmas for presentation, but loaf pans at other times because I can slice the panettone to use it for french toast, panettone bread pudding or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Joe Guzzardi will share any recipe. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.