Michele Franzan, writer for Gola Gioconda, a Florentine food magazine, advises buying panettone from a first-rate baker. I am reminded of this wise advice preparing for wintertime Venice, where the scent of bakeries is filling the air with trails of scent which you have to follow through the small cobblestone alleys and the bridges over the canals. I will miss making it from scratch myself this year.
This succulent, but tricky to make, bread-pudding from Lombardy in Northern Italy is forever associated with Christmas preparations, ever since its humble origins at the Sforza times (Milanese rulers in the late 15th and early 16th century). An absentminded cook burnt the dessert for Christmas' Eve and in his mortification his assistant Toni suggested using the leftover dough with what was on hand at the moment: eggs, raisins, candied fruits, butter and sugar. The end result was lavishly compliment, but the cook recounted with humility that “L’è ’l pan del Toni” (It is Toni’s bread). This is most probably fiction, no less because Toni is such an Italian-American nickname, and theories abound on the origins of the word and the recipe (Among them “Pane di tono” from French the “pain de ton”, aka “rich people’s bread”, and the Milanese “panett”, from the “panett de butter” i.e. small pack of butter).
Whatever the reality is, there is no doubt that panettone is delicious in its pliable sponginess, its fresh flesh yielding under the teeth and its candied fruits and raisins tickling the palate into a panorama of flavour. It's a hard to resist delicacy, reminiscent of fragrance and in fact often standing in for one on the day one prepares it.The whole house fills then with the creamy scent of melted butter and the baking aroma of sugared fruits and eggs, the whole emitting its rich, inviting, comforting scent all around. This is one of the main reasons to bake your own, besides the industrial ready-made variety being not as fresh and possessing a slightly plasticky texture. In reality it's no harder than kneading and baking your own bread.
For the first rising:
5 ounces (140 g) fresh yeast cake(at the refrigerator section of good supermarkets and at the baker's)
3 1/3 cups (400 g) flour
3/8 cup (90 g) unsalted butter
5/8 cup (110 g) sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
4/5 cup (200 ml) tepid water
For the second rising:
2 1/3 cups (280 g) flour
5/8 cup (110 g) unsalted butter
7/8 pound (400 g) sultana raisins
1/2 cup (100 g) sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon honey
1/2 teaspoon salt
A little flour for dusting the work surface and mold
The how to:
The evening before, melt the butter over a very low flame or a double boiler. Dissolve the sugar in about 2/5 cup (100 ml) of warm water (not too hot or it will kill the yeast, test with your hand). Put the melted butter, salt, and yeast cake in a mixing bowl. Next add the yolks and sugar, and sift in the flour without stopping whisking (It might take a tad more water at this stage). You want a smooth dough with plenty of air bubbles (too much whisking will burst them and it won't rise properly). Put it in a lightly floured bowl, cover it with a kitchen towel, and keep it warm (85 F, 30 C) for the night.
The next morning wash the raisins, drain them well, and set them on a cloth to dry.
The dough should have trippled in volume by now. Put on a working surface and add the flour, vanilla, yolks and honey. Knead with youy hands for about 20 minutes in all directions, then work in all but 2 tablespoons of the butter, which you will have melted as before, and a little water with a pinch of salt.
The dough will become shiny and will unstick: it's time to add the fruit. Divide into little balls that will later go into a baking tray (A pannetoni baking tray is best, but one for cake or for cupcakes will do in a pinch).
Take the balls of dough and put them in a warm corner, letting them rise again for 30 minutes. Grease your hands after they rise and gently put them into a baking tray (A panettoni baking tray is best, but one for cake or for cupcakes will do in a pinch). Leave them like that in a warm, humid corner for another 6 hours.
Heat the oven to 380 F (190 C). Cut an x into the top of each panettone and put 2 tablespoons (30 g) unsalted butter over the cuts. Put them in the oven, and after 4 minutes, remove them and quickly push down on the corners produced by the cuts. Return them to the oven and bake them until a skewer inserted into the middle comes out dry.
When ready, cool the panettoni on a rack; they're ready to serve.You can decorate with sliced blanched almonds if you like, sticking them with a tiny bit of cake frosting, though I personally prefer not to.
Panettoni keep for a good two weeks in a large air-tight biscuit tin, though it's ever so better when fresh.
Bon appetit and Merry Christmas to you!