Instantly recognisable for its tall, domed shape, panettone is pinpointed for its two main associations: with Christmas and with Italy. But it’s much more than a holiday cake.
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In most of these displays, the pièce de résistance, and the reason most people will enter, is a beautifully wrapped or decorated panettone – a tall, leavened bread of sweet, rich dough typically eaten at Christmas.
“An entire city identifies itself with this sweet. It’s important for Milan, and for the Milanese,” said Stanislao Porzio, author of the book Panettone and the founder and organiser of Re Panettone, the national Italian festival devoted to the food. “But it also is very important for bakeries throughout Italy. Panettone has become the typical Italian Christmas dessert.”
Instantly recognisable for its tall, domed shape, panettone is more a bread than a cake, its sweet dough studded with candied fruits and raisins. Popular worldwide, it’s usually pinpointed for its two main associations: with Christmas and with Italy.
But panettone is much more than an Italian Christmas cake.
“Around the world, they know that panettone is Italian. Well, OK – we are patriotic, and it’s true,” said Christian Tessari of Pasticceria Cucchi, a family-run bakery in Milan that looks almost the same as when it opened in 1936. “But it’s important to remember the paternity of this product: it was invented and born in Milan.”
In fact, from the time of panettone’s Renaissance origins up until the early 20th Century, it was hard to find outside the northern Italian city.
It’s also here that many locals still participate in one of panettone’s most important traditions – which isn’t at Christmas at all.
Nearly everyone you ask in Milan knows that you’re supposed to save a slice of panettone at Christmas to eat on 3 February. And even if they don’t do it themselves (few younger people tend to anymore), they can all tell you the story why.
According to legend, San Biagio (St Blaise) saved a child who was choking on a fish bone by giving him a piece of bread. And so, along with his list of other talents (including protecting farmers, mattress makers and forests), he also is said to protect throats. Some people still pray to him when they feel a sore throat coming on.
On the feast day held in his honour, 3 February, many people eat a slice of panettone that they saved from Christmas to eat now. The bread, long dried out (‘poss’ in Milanese dialect), often is toasted and eaten with butter.
One young woman told me her grandparents still do it every year. “Does it work?” I asked her. “Yes,” she said with a laugh. “They don’t get sick!”
Panettone in Milan, Italy (Credit: Amanda Ruggeri)
If you’ve only ever had the dessert from a big-box store, you might think that toasting and buttering even the fresh version is probably a good idea. But to have a ‘proper’ panettone – one that a baker has cared for, nourished and worked on for at least 36 hours, not including the time spent on the lievito madre, or starter culture – is a revelation. (It’s also more expensive; because they take so much time and skill to create, a traditional, hand-made panettone tends to cost 25 euros or more per kilo, a big difference from the 2-euro version you can buy at a supermarket).
At its best, done this way, panettone combines the moistness of a cake with the texture of a particularly delicate bread. The outside has a slight crust; the interior is melt-in-your-mouth soft. Pull a piece apart, and the strands come apart like candyfloss. Candied fruits give each bite an extra pop.
To butter a piece seems not only like sacrilege; it would be gilding the lily.
Much of the process for handmade panettone has been passed down over the generations. But that richness, said Porzio, is a more recent invention. “About 20 years ago, the traditional recipe said that for each kilo of flour, you used 400g of butter. Now, for every kilogram of flour, you add about a kilo of butter,” he said. “It’s become a much, much richer dessert.”
The addition of extra butter has made the dough even more difficult to work with – as if the process weren’t challenging enough already. “Panettone is very difficult to make,” Angelo Polenghi, head baker of Pasticceria Polenghi, shown here, told me. “You need experience.”
Experience is something Polenghi has a great deal of. When I contacted the bakery to ask when the 85-year-old baker might be in for me to visit, the response was swift: “He’s here every day!”.
That’s been true for the best part of 72 years. Polenghi’s mother started the bakery, which is tucked along a quiet street at the edge of Milan’s historic centre, in 1945. When he finished middle school, she asked him what he wanted to do: more school, or work. He said he wanted to work. He’s been at the bakery ever since.
One of Polenghi’s most sought-after products is panettone. On a day in early December, one wall was lined with panettoni in shiny red or elegant chocolate-brown paper, each topped with a hand-written name. This one was waiting for Sig. Ferrario for pick-up, that one for Sig.ra Colombo. My chat with Polenghi and his great-nephew, who mans the front, was frequently interrupted by locals coming in to place new orders. All of them knew him by name.
Typically, Italians buy panettoni as gifts, a tradition that dates back as long as the bread itself.
In the 14th and 15th Centuries, wheat was a precious ingredient. It was so precious, in fact, that until the 14th Century, every bakery in Milan except for one made wheat bread only at Christmas, when they gave it to their clients. (The rest of the year, people ate breads made from grains like spelt or oats). In 1470, Giorgio Valagussa, a tutor to the Sforza dukes of Milan, described a Christmas Eve custom that the royal family (like other Milanese) celebrated: as a log burned in the fireplace, the family’s patriarch would cut up three loaves of wheat bread, giving a slice to the other members of the family.
“After that, he’d save a slice for the next year. It was a sign of continuity, a sort of rite,” Porzio said. “And on this bread, there was a cross.”
Panettone, of course, is a similarly precious wheat bread eaten at Christmas. The Milanese tradition of saving it has survived (though now only until February, not the following December). So has the tradition of giving it away.
Despite some similar traditions, 15th-Century panettone looked little like today’s. It isn’t until the 19th Century that we can be sure it began to look similar to ours: in an 1839 Italian-Milanese dictionary, the entry for panettone describes the recipe as including butter, eggs, sugar and raisins.
Until the end of the 19th Century, it still was a food that, for the most part, you’d only encounter in Milan. Then came Angelo Motta.
When Motta opened his Milan bakery in 1919, panettone was made much like a big loaf of bread. But then, Porzio said, a client came to place a special order. He was a Russian émigré in Milan who had fled the Bolshevik revolution, and he wanted 200 kulich – Russian Easter cakes – for a party. When Motta looked at the recipe, he noticed something interesting: it was very similar to panettone. One difference? It was made inside a tall, cylindrical tin. Motta adopted the mould for panettone, using a ring of paper instead to give the dough the vertical, puffed-top shape that we see today.
Both Motta and his competitor Gioacchino Alemagna, who opened his own bakery in 1925, figured out how to streamline and industrialise the process. Panettoni soon began to be shipped all over Italy.
One of the reasons industrialisation took over is that making panettone by hand is an extreme challenge – one that requires equal parts skill, science, artistry and patience.
“The most important ingredient – the natural yeast – is very difficult work with. It is very temperamental,” Porzio said. “You have to be very attentive to the temperature, the humidity and the climate.”
The kind of yeast most of us use today wasn’t introduced into bread-making until the 1700s. Instead, panettone makers (like sourdough bread bakers) rely on harnessing micro-organisms in the flour, water and air. But what Italians call the lievito madre – the starter culture, which in Italian literally (and poetically) means ‘mother yeast’ – isn’t just difficult to care for. It requires a great deal of coaxing.
Several weeks before they begin to make panettone, bakers start reinforcing the lievito madre, feeding and kneading it three times a day with flour and water. They have to keep checking both its acidity and the temperature; professional bakeries use machines like the one above.
If any of it is off, or even if the flour has a greater or lesser gluten content than it should, the bread may not rise at all, have an odd texture or taste sour.
“Bakers making panettone have dark circles under their eyes, because they’re sleeping very little. And they sleep little because they have to interrupt the rising at certain points to make sure there’s not too much acidity,” Porzio said.
When I met Andrea Rampinelli at 11am, he had some of the tell-tale signs of a premium panettone maker in December. “It’s a work that’s not only beautiful and complex, but it also is very gruelling,” he said. “Today I came at 5am.”
It doesn’t seem that Rampinelli would want it any other way. His father began making panettone in the 1950s and opened the family pasticceria, Pasticceria MacMahon, in 1971 in Milan; Andrea has led the operation for the last seven years. Panettone is his passion – and it’s impossible to make it properly without lievito madre. The ‘mother yeast’ gives the bread its irreplaceable texture and sweet, almost imperceptibly-tangy flavour.
It also means that each bakery’s panettone has its own specific flavour. “Lievito madre is influenced by the microclimate where you work. The laboratory of each bakery, the atmosphere, has its own bacteria and climate that influences the panettone. So each one’s different from the next,” said Cucchi’s Tessari.
Candying lemons for panettone in Milan (Credit: Amanda Ruggeri)
‘Refreshing’ the lievito madre, of course, is only the start of the process. After, it’s time to make the dough. Along with the starter, flour, sugar, water, egg yolks, salt and butter are beaten together. The dough rises for about 12 hours, still at 28C. Then it gets another addition: more flour, salt, water, butter and eggs, as well as the candied peels and raisins. It rises again. Some bakeries then even do a third rising.
Rampinelli is so passionate about the process that he even buys organic fruit to candy them himself, a process that requires 20 days of constantly changing the syrup. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s a passion,” he said.
Angelo Polenghi making panettone (Credit: Amanda Ruggeri)
Saffron-yellow from the butter, the dough finally is shaped into round patties, then placed into a ring of paper with a bottom, a mould called a pirottino.
The pirottino hadn’t yet been invented when Polenghi, shown here, was a child helping his mother in her bakery. It was his job to oil the strips of paper that would be wrapped around the dough – giving it its shape to prevent it from spreading out. But the strips had to be oiled by hand and each one had to be peeled off the cake after it was done, and the bottom of the panettone often burned.
“When I first saw the pirottino, I called the person who invented it a holy person,” he said. It was the late 1950s, and that person was Angelo Mattioni, a paper producer. Mattioni's creation, which no longer needed to be buttered or removed, made the entire process faster, simpler and was one more reason that the sweet became an even easier product to streamline in factories.
Panettone upside-down (Credit: Amanda Ruggeri)
Even at the end of the entire process, after the panettone has baked, there’s one last step that can break – or make – the cake. If it’s taken out of the oven and left as it is, it will collapse like a soufflé. A baker has about 20 seconds to flip each one, which ensures the top doesn’t fall. Rampinelli uses these metal ‘rails’ for attaching and flipping the panettone quickly.