Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Panettone - The Sweet History of The Christmas Bread

Panettone Photo by Leticia Alaniz © 2015
Panettone is the decadent bread of luxury that makes it’s elegant appearance every year for the Christmas season up until Epiphany or Three Kings' day on January 6th.  

For centuries it has made its way into folktales and even Italian oil paintings.  One particular story was brilliantly captured based on an ancient folktale by children’s author Tomie dePaola in Tony’s Bread: An Italian Folktale.  Tony, a baker in a small village has a beautiful daughter of marriageable age named Serafina, but he thinks no man is worthy enough for her.  But one day, Angelo, a wealthy nobleman who came into town in search of a bride, falls in love with her at first sight and wants to marry his daughter.  Tony, already decided that no man in the region was handsome or strong enough for his daughter, decides to give the suitor a chance by asking him to take over some of the baking in his bakery.  Tony wants to become the most famous baker in all of Milano and Angelo is determined to win Tony’s approval and Serafina’s hand in marriage.  He works hard every day to come up with the perfect recipe and kneads the most fluffiest dough ever known.  Once the dough had fermented and risen enough, he kneaded it even more and mixed in pieces of luxurious dry fruit.  He placed it in a mold and gave it the shape of a cupola so that it resembled the high cupolas of Milan’s cathedrals.  Angelo calls the bread Pan di Tonio, or panettone in honor of Tony and the bread became famous all over Italy.  As the folktale tells us, Angelo eventually won Angela’s hand in marriage and it is commonly said that the flavored bread was born from love.

The true origin of the panettone has its roots in the Middle Ages.  In those times there was a widespread custom of celebrating Christmas with a bread that was more special and richer than the daily bread, usually sweetened with honey.  There's an ancient manuscript from the fifteenth century written by Giorgio Valagussa, preceptor of the Sforza House that certifies the late century ritual of celebrating with fragrant, sweet bread and the burning of a heavy log called a trunk or yule log.  The burning of the trunk signified light in the dark winter months when the winter solstice had already begun by December 22nd.  On the night of Christmas eve, December 24th, the log was placed in the fireplace and at the same time, loaves of the special bread were placed on the table for the Christmas eve dinner.  Wheat, candied dried fruits and eggs were of great value, and very expensive especially in the winter season.  The head of the family served a slice to each of the guests, reserving one for the following year or Epiphany as a sign of continuity.  The ancient pagan tradition of celebrating the Roman holidays or winter solstice blended with Christian traditions and the custom of celebrating with fragrant, sweet bread spread far and wide.

The tradition of baking bread in Milan gained even more fame with the creation of the panettone.  There are many versions and recipes from many bakeries all whom guard their secret recipes with the family.  Even today, right up until Christmas, Milan bakers are busy fermenting the bread from a sourdough starter for several days in preparation for the Christmas feasts.  Some bakers rise the dough at least three times, which yields a very fluffy and airy bread.  Panettone was an expensive bread and a luxury not afforded often.  Therefore it was reserved for Christmas.  The first recorded association of panettone with Christmas can be found in the writings of 18th century illuminist Pietro Verri. He refers to it as "Pane di Tono”.  The word "panettone" derives from the Italian word "panetto", a small loaf cake. The augmentative Italian suffix "-one" changes the meaning to "large cake".  

As Italians immigrated to other parts of the world, they brought the tradition of the panettone with them, especially to Latin America, where in Peru, Venezuela and Mexico, panettone is always on the Christmas table and sold in all the bakeries along with rosca de reyes or kings bread.  In many families, panettone is either purchased or home made and given as Christmas gifts in beautifully wrapped boxes.    

An authentic panettone takes several days to make.  The process is long as it requires a long curing process of the dough which is acidic like a sourdough.  It contains candied orange, citron, and lemon zest, as well as raisins, which are added dry and not soaked.  It is served in slices accompanied with sweet hot beverages, sweet wine, or a sweet liquor such as amaretto. 

By Leticia Alaniz