While the signs of Christmas in Singapore seem to be a bit more subdued this year due to the pandemic (one only has to look at the more restrained lights and decorations on Orchard Road as proof), towers of beribboned trapezoidal boxes of panettone in stores throughout the city beg to differ. The panettone are just as exuberant as always, beautifully wrapped in colours of yellow, gold, blue (and even lime green!), heralding the onset of the festive season, pandemic notwithstanding. After all, these ancestral breads have probably seen more than their share of troubles since they were introduced to Europe in the Middle Ages, more than 500 years ago.
Panettone is a traditional Christmas sweet bread made with flour, eggs, yeast, butter, sugar, raisins and cedro – the candied rind of a large Sicilian lemon. These simple ingredients belie the almost ethereal intensity of the bread and its extravagant taste. Good panettone is light as a feather, with tissue-like layers of dough here and there, managing to be buttery without being rich. It melts in your mouth like candy floss, disappearing without a trace except for the bits of crunchy sugar topping, which serve as a coda – and as an invitation to have a second slice!
Panettone most likely traces its origins to the breads ancient Romans baked as ritual offerings to their gods. Still, many legends are associated with panettone, the most popular being one of romance. This version has a well-born young man falling in love with the beautiful daughter of a poor Milanese baker named Tonio. To forestall his family from opposing the marriage, the young man provided Tonio with the finest eggs, flour, butter, and sugar as well as sweet ingredients like candied lemon peel and raisons for his bakery. Tonio’s creation from these ingredients, the panettone or “Pane di Tonio”, was an instant success making him very rich and his daughter a suitable bride.
No matter where panettone was created, it is inexorably associated with Milan, and is that city’s regional specialty. The Milanese enjoy eating their panettone with a custardy zabaglione or with even mascarpone, the creamy white Italian cheese. A suitable accompaniment to panettone, adorned or unadorned, would be a light sparkling wine like Moscato d'Asti or an extra dry prosecco. Perhaps also a cappuccino, should you be having the panettone as a toasted slice at breakfast, a favourite of many Italians. Even stale panettone can be used to elevate recipes such as bread pudding or French toast.
Bakers find panettone to be infuriating to make, saying that it defies every rule of breadmaking. Its dough is extremely sensitive and demanding. It requires constant attention and is built up in stages, needing two levitaziones – two distinct periods of rising to get the dough to swell to the appropriate texture. The preparation of the dough, even in large commercial establishments, takes eighteen hours. After baking, the panettone is then cooled upside down to prevent its crown from caving in on itself. Rows of panettone hanging upside down from a bakery ceiling are a striking sight to behold.
As the evolution of panettone continues, with new flavours such as limoncello, or chocolate being introduced and capturing a greater share of the market, the process remains the same. Every winter, Italy produces nearly two loaves per every resident, many for export. Can you imagine how many panettone would be produced if this delicious bread were available all year long? I, for one, would welcome such a development.
Article written by Aparna Dubey
Panettone Bread Pudding
From the New York Times
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
6 to 8 slices/550 grams panettone
⅓ cup/67 grams sugar
½ teaspoon kosher salt
4 cups whole milk
Confectioners' sugar, to garnish
Heat the oven to 350 degrees and butter a deep baking dish that will fit all the bread slices in a single layer, overlapping slightly, about 9 by 5 inches. Place the sliced panettone on a sheet pan and lightly toast it in the oven so that it’s still flexible, but dry to the touch, about 10 minutes. Arrange toast in the baking dish.
In a large mixing bowl, whisk the eggs with the sugar and salt, then add the milk and whisk until smooth. Pour through a fine-mesh strainer over the panettone, allowing the excess mixture to fill up the pan. Cover tightly with aluminum foil and bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until the bread has soaked up all the custard and puffed up, and the custard is no longer runny. Allow to cool at least 30 minutes before serving, then use a fine-mesh sieve to dust all over with confectioners' sugar and serve.