When it comes to Christmas sweets, we’re spoiled. There are candy canes, cookies, and enough desserts to snack on all winter long. One kind of dessert we don’t often associate with Christmas, however, is cake. For whatever reason, Christmas isn’t so much of a cake holiday in America, other than fruitcake (and that’s kind of as a joke anyway). But in countries around the world, cakes aren’t just included in Christmas, they’re a traditional part that many really enjoy. One you may be lightly familiar with is panettone. If you’re looking to add a bit of variety to your holiday celebrations and try something new, you’ll love these buttery, citrusy Christmas cakes.
So, what exactly is a panettone? The easiest way to describe it is a fruit-cake-like bread that comes to us from Italy, specifically Milan. Perhaps the most accurate description is similar to a brioche. It’s often denser than a loaf of white bread but lighter and fluffier than a cake. The most recognizable aspect of panettone for those who know it is its tall, dome-top shape, making it look like a giant muffin.
True Italian panettone follows strict guidelines for making the bread: no less than 20 percent mass is candied fruit, 16 percent mass is made of butter, and the egg content must be at least 4 percent yolk, so no egg white only.
As with many things, it’s what’s inside that matters most. Hidden inside is candied orange and lemon peels and raisins. Sometimes, you may find candied cherries or other fruits. The bread dough is seasoned with citrus zest, giving it an extra dimension that sets it apart from other sweet breads. True Italian panettone follows strict guidelines for making the bread: no less than 20 percent mass is candied fruit, 16 percent mass is made of butter, and the egg content must be at least 4 percent yolk, so no egg white only. This could be in response to the sizable knock-off market that has caused Italy to request the World Trade Organization take protective action, similar to how champagne can only be from the Champagne region of France. Until that happens, check out where the panettone is from. Genuine panettone only comes from Italy.
The description of panettone sounds a bit like fruit cake, and this makes sense when you look at it with a bird’s eye view. It’s a sweet baked good with candied fruits served around Christmas. That’s not a completely fair comparison, though. There are many key differences that mean they may be similar but certainly not the same.
These two Christmas baked goods may be similar, but they are on opposite sides of the spectrum.
When many of us think of a fruit cake, it’s the dense, dry “gift” so hard you could break a window. Panettone is a light and fluffy bread. Some panettone recipes may call for other fruits, but the citrus fruits, the candied orange and lemon, must remain. The fruits in fruit cake vary wildly from recipe.
The bread dough or cake batter also differ greatly. In fruit cake, the cake is flavored with deep, warm spices and sweeteners. You’ll often use molasses and dark brown sugar, along with cinnamon, nutmeg, or allspice. Panettone is brighter in flavor. The sweetness comes from white granulated sugar and the zest gives the flavor a citrusy zip. These two Christmas baked goods may be similar, but they are on opposite sides of the spectrum.
Like many food origin stories, the legends of the creation of panettone are probably untrue, but that doesn’t make it any less fun. There are two primary stories about how the sweet bread got what seems to be its original name, pane di Toni (Toni’s bread). This first story is about a nobleman from the 1400s, Ughetto degli Atellani. He fell in love with Adalgisa, the daughter of a poor baker named Toni. Atellani disguised himself as a baker to impress Toni and win his favor. While working for him, Atellani made changes to the sweet bread recipe and the baker’s fortunes changed. His shop would become known for pane di Toni, which was the panettone that became incredibly popular in their home of Milan.
The other popular legend is the tale of a baker and his apprentice at a Christmas Eve feast thrown by the Duke of Milan, Ludovico il Moro. The feast was so large that he had emptied the kitchens of almost all the food. When it came time for dessert, the head baker snuck off to meet with a nobleman’s wife. When his apprentice found the baker and brought him back, the dessert had been utterly burned. While the baker panicked, his apprentice, who was poor and used to working with scraps, grabbed whatever he could find and whipped up a sweet bread. With nothing else to present, the baker served the bread to the court. It was a massive hit, and when the baker was applauded for his work, he gave credit to his apprentice, Toni, saying it’s “pane di Toni.”
Maybe that accounts for Italy’s five extra years of life expectancy compared to the United States.
There is also an old tradition in Milan of saving the top of the panettone from Christmas. It’s saved until February 3, the feast day for Saint Blaise (or San Biagio in Italian). Legend has it that Saint Blaise saved a child from choking on a fish bone and became the patron saint of throats. Some Italian Catholics still pray to the saint when they feel a sore throat coming on. On his feast day, Italians who still partake in the tradition will toast up the now dried and stale panettone and eat it with bread to honor the saint and avoid becoming sick that year. Maybe that accounts for Italy’s five extra years of life expectancy compared to the United States.
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After awhile, a lot of common Christmas desserts can get a little old. Don’t get us wrong, Christmas cookies are delicious, but after your third plate, you might be craving something different. Panettone can be that something. Sweet, balanced, rich, and big enough to share, Toni’s bread is everything you could want for Christmas dessert this year.