If you love Italian food but hate panettone, you’re probably doing it wrong. Here’s why you should give this baked speciality another try this Christmas.
Ask any person of Italian descent and panettone will be a fixture in their home over the holidays.
Growing up half Italian, December was one long marathon of large, coloured boxes being gifted and received by relatives. You knew when someone skimped on a cheap one or if someone went out of their way to secure a rarer flavour combo. But show up sans ‘ttone? Oh, Madonna mia, no – Italian social suicide. Friendships were forged and relationships soured over this stuff. It was almost a sport.
Panettone politics aside, the cake-bread hybrid is actually kinda genius. But if you’re scrunching up your nose in defiance, hear me out.
I used to be like you. When I was younger, I couldn’t understand who the hell would voluntarily choose to consume this giant brown dome that wasn’t sweet enough to be cake and – blergh – was brimming with candied fruit and sultanas. What kind of monster puts candied oranges into anything dessert-related?!
In my 20s, I’d literally only need to catch a glimpse of a box on our family kitchen counter to have PTSD flashbacks of sitting at Italian family celebrations where some random third cousin serves me a slice – without anything to accompany it – and watches me as I force feed myself dry spoonfuls until give a fake “mmm, buono!” seal of approval.
But one year, after all the Christmas feasting was over, I saw a snazzy-looking, authentic Italian Panettone box sitting on the bench so I decided to give it a whirl. I couldn’t be bothered to grab a knife and I took a chunk of it off onto my plate, continuing to pull it apart and eat it with my hands. Well, it was bloody good. I was so over eating chocolates and anything too sweet – I appreciated that it was a more grounded offering. But had I changed, or was it the panettone?
I’ve since learned it comes down to two things: exactly where your panettone is from and how you eat it.
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Panettone goes way back
Like most things in Italy, panettone has a rich, long history and tradition. Some say it dates back to Milan as far as the 1200s, others the 1400s – either way, it’s been around for a while. And its origin story is similarly hazy, with multiple renditions of panettone’s invention. One popular legend involves a Milanese nobleman with the hots for a baker’s daughter posing as a baker to win her over. He brought in fancy rich-people ingredients and inadvertently made panettone.
Panettone swiftly became the king of Italian bakes. Originally eaten by the wealthy over the holidays, competition between two bakehouses after WWI allowed prices to drop enough for everyone to enjoy. It was so firmly embedded as a status symbol in Italian culture that even emigrating Italians took panettone with them abroad to their new lives.
And here’s the thing: it’s notoriously difficult to bake. This is why it matters where you buy your panettone from. Made from a sourdough starter and needing to rise at least three times (this is why it’s so light textured), panettone has even become Everest for amateur home bakers, both their obsession and arch nemesis.
How to choose a good panettone
If you buy an inferior panettone, it’s game over. Italy has insanely strict standards around the production of panettone because they consider it a speciality item, so check where it’s made. Then read the labels and watch for lower quality ingredients such as margarine (you want butter) or powdered eggs instead of fresh ones.
How to cut and serve the thing
The biggest mistake you can make is serving a dry-ass slice of panettone to a guest. My Nonna and I will be personally offended if you do this.
Traditionally, you cut it into slices like you would a cake and enjoy it with a glass of bubbles. Prominent pasticceria Loison believes you should warm up your panettone in the oven on low (40 degrees) for 30 minutes before serving to ensure a soft, beautiful result (video above).
However, you can riff to make it work for you. My whole experience changed when I had a good quality panettone and ate it by tearing off strips with my hands as if it were flesh. I know that sounds barbaric, but I don’t care. The thinner strips folded like soft sheets on my tongue and it became a joy to eat.
The other game changer is a custard or cream. If you’re worried about your panettone being dry, get some zabaglione on that bad boy (actually, do it even if you’re not worried). NB: Zabaglione is a heavenly custard-like dessert made by whisking together egg yolks, wine/champagne/marsala and sugar. Although my family has always been partial to my Nonna’s egg custard, but each to their own.
Other people toast their slices and slather it with butter or nutella. Anything goes in the privacy of your own home. Get creative.
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If you can’t get past the candied fruit
Great news for simple palates: Italy also invented pandoro, which is literally fruitless panettone. Slightly sweeter, these are the ones you see with choc chips or other yummy additions. They are very good.
The moral of the story? If you’ve harshly judged panettone like I once did, give it another try. You love everything else Italy has to offer – pizza, pasta, cannoli, gelato, risotto, tiramisu, burrata, ricotta – so trust in the OG feeders. Then, you’ll be partaking in a passionate source of Italian festive pride this Christmas.
(Lead Image: Instagram / @deciccos)