Even the most experienced and extravagant bakers across the lands with a keen knowledge of the behavior of yeast and its leavening properties, a background in culinary chemistry especially fermentation and PH levels, an instinct for perfect timing and precision equal to the Greenwich mean time keeper, and the patience of Job would be leery to tackle the Panettone in their own ovens, a Milanese holiday indulgence that traces back to Medieval days.
The Italian Diaspora during the 19th and 20th centuries created a Panettone frenzy as the recipe trickled throughout Europe and North America, currently a multi-billion-dollar industry worldwide. The iconic Panettone is Italy's Christmas contribution, rivaled only by England's plum pudding, Germany's Stollen, France's Buche de Noel and Australia's Pavlova cake, but more magical in its prolonged creation.
It cures for several days during a triple- leavening process when the "mother dough" infused with a sourdough bread starter and wrapped in a towel from evening till the next morning begins the arduous journey — don't try this at home! The finished product — a decadent, bejeweled cupola-shaped bread that's both airy and chewy, almost flossy in texture that melts in the mouth like cotton-candy, is a gustatory work of art.
There is also something sacred and spiritual in its shape that is reminiscent of a church dome, and preparation rituals, including making a cross on the top with a sharp knife before it enters the oven, as a ceremonial blessing to the baking Gods.
There are competing tales of the Panettone's origin — one romantic, the other pragmatic. The former lays a solid claim about a dapper young nobleman from Milan named Ugheto Atellani who became smitten with a poor baker's daughter. To win her hand, Ugheto financed the baker's operations by purchasing expensive, high-quality ingredients and helping concoct a sweet Christmas bread with butter, eggs, raisins and candied fruits.
Customers flocked to the bakery for the divine treat, and the grateful baker granted the nobleman's marriage request for his daughter. The wedding, a lavish affair hosted by Ludovico Sforza, the duke of Milan showcased the candied cake called "Pan de Ton," which translates to "bread of luxury."
The other version takes place around the same era at the Milanese court of the duke, who was preparing a Christmas feast for aristocrats. When one of the cooks burned the festive cake the quick thinking kitchen boy named Toni improvised with leftover pantry ingredients, including butter, flour, citrus zest and sultanas. When the duke asked the name of the blissful delight the chef responded, "the bread of Toni" or "Pan de Toni," which abbreviated to Panettone.
The holiday season launches a serious global competition when bakers try to one-Panettone-up each other with lavish and creative ingredients. There are more Panettone variations than lottery ticket amalgams, the classic with citrus peels and candied fruits is still a popular choice.
Other versions include such rich and sinful ingredients as espresso or tiramisu cream, wild black cherries macerated in tart aged balsamic vinegar, bittersweet chocolate covered cocoa bean kernels, sultanas coated in hazelnut ganache, honey glazed chestnuts, sugar pie pumpkin slices and quince fruit, cranberries soaked in Grand Marnier, raisins plumped in brandy, sea salted pistachios, and dough infused with sweet Torcolato dessert wine, limoncello (lemon-flavored liquor) or Champagne.
Panettone is a versatile pastry that can be enjoyed for breakfast with a slathering of honey goat cheese or almond butter and washed down with a cappuccino. For tea time, serve with a dollop of crema di mascarpone cheese or lemon curd and a cup of invigorating green or ginger tea.
And for dessert, include a hearty scoop of vanilla bean whipped cream or gelato accompanied by a sweet Italian wine or a sparkling spumante or moscato.
Recipe: Panettone Crème Brule French Toast
• Ingredients: 1 large Panettone (26-ounce, your choice) cut in 1/2-inch slices; 1/2 cup butter, unsalted (1 stick); 1 cup brown sugar (tightly packed); 5 extra-large eggs; 3/4 cup heavy cream; 3/4 cup whole or almond milk; 1 teaspoon almond extract; 1/4 teaspoon sea salt; 2 teaspoons Grand Marnier, Frangelico or Amaretto; powdered sugar.
• Method: Butter a 9x13-inch baking dish. In a saucepan, melt butter with brown sugar, stirring until completely dissolved. Pour into baking dish.
Place bread slices in pan on top of butter mixture in one even layer, squeezing edges slightly to make bread fit.
In a bowl, whisk together cream, milk, eggs, salt, extract and liqueur. Pour over bread. Tightly cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate 8 hours or overnight. Let stand at room temperature for 20 minutes before placing in a preheated oven at 350 degrees F. Bake for 30-40 minutes until golden and puffed. Sprinkle with powdered sugar. Serve warm.