Italy’s Traditional Christmas Bread
December 9, 2020
Italians consume an estimated 5.5 pounds of panettone per family each Christmas season. Panettone is Italy’s most popular Christmas bread and its origins are in Milan, with many folklore stories surrounding its name and creation. This tall cylinder of sweetness is mentioned in documents as far back as the 1200’s when it was referred to as “pane di tono” meaning bread of the rich in Milanese dialect. Studded with candied orange and lemon peel, citron and golden raisins and rich with eggs and butter in the dough, it was far too expensive to be something the country folk enjoyed.
During the Middle Ages, at Christmastide, people often ate a bread that was a little richer and more refined than their daily dose of coarse bread. A fifteenth century manuscript written by George Valagussa, a tutor to the powerful Sforza family, mentions such a bread being given by the head of household to guests in a gesture of peace and friendship.
Until 1919, panettone was baked form-less without a mold and did not reach such tall heights until commercially produced by Angelo Motta, credited with the technique of allowing the dough to rise three times before baking it in paper molds which in turn gave it its distinctive dome shape.
Most Italians buy panettone today from large scale producers like Bauli and other commercial brands on the market today but homemade is still the best and requires a bit of time to make. The recipe below has been streamlined to cut down on the preparation time with good results.
Panettone is a good keeper too when made ahead and frozen for up to two months in advance.
Panettone –Milan’s Christmas Bread
Makes 1 Large Loaf or 2 Smaller Ones
1 package active dry yeast
1/2 cup warm (110 F) water
1/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
2/3 cup golden raisins
1/4 cup grappa or brandy
5 tablespoons butter, softened
2 large eggs
4 large egg yolks
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup warm (110º to 115ºF) water
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
4 1/2 to 5 cups plus 1 tablespoon unbleached all purpose flour
Grated zest of 1 medium orange
Grated zest of 1 medium lemon
1/2 cup chopped candied citron
Dissolve the yeast in the warm water in a medium size bowl. Stir in the flour with a spoon to make a loose dough. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place for at least 6 hours or overnight.
In a small bowl, combine the raisins and grappa or brandy, and let marinate for at least 4 hours, or overnight.
In a large bowl, stir the butter, eggs, yolks, sugar, warm water and vanilla together. Drain the raisins in a small strainer set over a bowl and press on the raisins with a spoon to extract as much liquid as possible. Set the raisins aside and add the liquid to the egg mixture. Add the yeast mixture and mix well with your hands. Add the flour about 2 cups at a time, mixing with your hands until a ball of dough forms.
Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface and knead for 5 to 10 minutes, or until smooth and elastic, adding additional flour as needed.
Butter a large bowl, place the dough in the bowl, and turn to coat. Cover with a clean cloth and let rise for 6 hours in a warm place.
Butter and flour a paper panettone or deep mold at least 6 inches tall and 7 to 8 inches wide. The ceramic insert to a crockpot is ideal or use two 2-pound coffee cans and make 2 smaller loaves. Paper panettone molds are available on line and at fantes.com
Punch down the dough and turn it out onto a floured surface. Flatten the dough out with your hands and sprinkle on the lemon and orange zest. In a small bowl, mix the raisins and citron with the 1 tablespoon flour, and sprinkle the mixture over the dough. Fold the dough in half, press the edges together, and knead to distribute the fruits. Continue to knead for 5 to 10 minutes or until the dough is smooth, adding additional flour if necessary. Place the dough in the mold, cover with a clean cloth, and let rise for 45 minutes in a warm place.
Preheat the oven to 400ºF. Cut an X with n kitchen scissors the top of the bread. Bake for 10 minutes, reduce the heat to 375ºF, and bake for 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to 350ºF, and bake for 30 to 45 minutes longer, or until a skewer inserted in the center of the bread comes out clean. If the top begins to brown too much, cover the bread loosely with a piece of foil.
Cool the bread on a rack for about 30 minutes before removing it from the mold.
Note: There are many versions of panettone. Some use Vin Santo, a sweet dessert wine, instead of grappa. Some are made with olive oil instead of butter, and some include pine nuts and anise seed instead of raisins and citron. Some are filled with figs, chestnuts and even chocolate.