italian christmas pandoro cake

Have you ever heard of a pandoro cake? This classic Italian Christmas treat may not be as well-known around the world as panettone or Colomba (a dove-shaped Easter sweet bread), but it seems to have picked up some steam in recent years, with its unique shape making it a desirable addition to festive spreads both as a dessert and a decoration.

Let’s explore what pandoro is, where it came from, and how it became the recent Christmas obsession. 

What is a Pandoro?

Pandoro is one of the traditional Italian Christmas desserts, a type of sweet bread from Verona that’s more often than not referred to as cake. Famous in its native country, it has largely flown under the radar for the rest of the world until about the last decade or so.

One of the most significant contributing factors to pandoro’s popularity is its memorable shape: pandoro is traditionally baked in a unique deep mold with eight sharp points. The mold gives the pandoro a tall, frustum-like shape with a cross-section that looks like an eight-point star.

Like its Milanese analog panettone, a pandoro is made with a yeast dough that has been liberally enriched with copious amounts of butter and eggs. 

Unlike panettone, the dough also contains a relatively high amount of sugar as traditionally, pandoro dough isn’t mixed with other ingredients like raisins or candied fruits (though the dough is often flavored with lemon zest), so it cannot rely on their natural sweetness. The only garnish a classic pandoro is supposed to have is a light dusting of icing sugar on top.

Interestingly, while the tradition of not adding dried or candied fruit to pandoro dough has held, the more modern varieties don’t shy away from other additions. It’s not uncommon to find pandoro varieties straddled with chocolate chips or filled with various flavored creams, from chocolate and vanilla to more novel limoncello and tiramisu. 

How Pandoro Became a Christmas Staple in Verona:

The origins of pandoro are a tad bit complicated. According to historical accounts, a similar sweet bread first popped up somewhere in the first century AD. A sweet bread made with “the finest flour combined with eggs, butter and oil” is mentioned in the book by Vergilius Stephanus Senex, and many refer to this pastry as something of a proto-pandoro.

Most, however, consider the true progenitor of pandoro to be Nadalin. Nadalin is another Veronese sweet bread. It was invented specifically for the first Christmas feast under the Della Scala family rule, which would date its creation by the year 1262 (when the Della Scala family became the rules of Verona). Nadalin was apparently sweeter than pandoro, less buttery, and denser. Still, there were certain similarities between the two as well, the most significant of which is that it was shaped like a star. 

The star shape was deliberate. Nadalin was supposed to represent the Christmas Star, the comet that led the Magi to Bethlehem, where they bestowed gold, frankincense, and myrrh upon the baby Jesus.

The truth is that Nadalin was likely the oldest, but still just one of many enriched sweet bread varieties the Venetian nobility seemed to love. By the early 15th century, these breads, made with eggs, butter, and sugar and sometimes additionally sweetened with honey, were often served in palaces regardless of the season. They were called “pan de oro” (It. for “golden bread”), both for the deep yellow color of the dough and the habit of Chefs in particularly wealthy families to decorate the tops with gold dust or thin sheets of gold leaf instead of sugar. 

The modern version of the pandoro cake started shaping up in the 18th century. By this time, the Veneto region (primarily Venice) had become the principal market for spices and sugar, with the latter almost entirely replacing honey as a pastry sweetener, and the “golden bread” bakers were following suit, making the product more easily available to the masses.

But it wasn’t until the late 19th century that pandoro obtained the easily recognizable form we know today. 

Domenico Melegatti, a Veronese pastry chef, more likely than not, got its inspiration from Nadalin while working on his “pan de oro” recipe. The difference was that, unlike the Classic Christmas cake, his golden bread was well-leavened, tall, airy, and fluffy. Instead of the crunchy top made with granulated sugar and almonds, it was just lightly dusted with icing sugar. 

Melegatti trademarked his pandoro recipe in 1894. To this day, Melegatti pandoro remains the most famous in its native country. 

The more interesting question (and the one I’ve not been able to find the answer to) is when exactly the transition from “golden bread” to “Christmas treat” happened to pandoro. Nadalin is apparently still around and well-loved by the Veronese people (it got the municipal designation of origin in 2012). And Melegatti didn’t even position his invention as a Christmas food in the beginning. In fact, according to claims, the pandoro was initially supposed to represent the snowy picks of the Italian Alps, not the Christmas Star.

But it is what it is: today, pandoro is the most beloved Veronese Christmas dessert, with its brightly colored boxes not only lining the isles of grocery stores and supermarkets but decorating the windows at bookshops, clothing boutiques, and antique shops.

There’s no Christmas in Verona without pandoro, and the rest of the world is slowly but surely catching up.

The Great Italian Christmas Debacle: Is Pandoro the Same as Panettone?

If you’ve only recently come across pandoro, chances are you came across it when it was being compared to panettone (i.e., the Milanese version of enriched sweet Christmas bread).

And when the two are being compared, two questions always pop up: is pandoro the same as panettone, and which one is better?

It’s true that the similarities between pandoro and panettone are undeniable. Both are made with sweet yeast dough; both are tall and fluffy; both use a large amount of butter, and so on.

But it shouldn’t be overlooked that both have a distinct historical identity firmly tied to their hometowns, and referring to them as if they’re the same, negates essential parts of that identity. Yes, they’re both Italian Christmas sweet bread; no, they’re not the same. If it makes separating the two easier, keep a few differences in mind: pandoro contains no raisins or candied fruit, and panettone is shaped like a dome, not a star.

Both are great holiday foods that curbed out their space in Christmas festivities. It would be a disservice to view them as interchangeable. As to the question of which is better: they’re both excellent, and the preference depends on a person’s specific tastes. 

How Do You Serve a Pandoro?

Traditionally, a pandoro cake is supposed to be cut vertically into thick wedges, similar to panettone. But recently, it has become more common to cut it horizontally to take advantage of its star-shaped cross-section. 

The star-shaped slices are then stacked atop each other again. Only the points are deliberately misaligned so that the pandoro looks like a Christmas tree. 

Pandoro slices are often served with whipped Mascarpone cream, pastry cream, jams, or zabaglione (Italian custard made with egg yolks, sugar, and sweet wine), along with a cup of hot drink. 

How Long Does a Pandoro Last?

As with many traditional holiday foods that hit the shelves during the season, the answer depends on whether the pandoro cake in question is freshly baked or commercially packaged.

Commercially packaged pandoro is specifically designed and wrapped in a way to last for a long time. The classic sugar-dusted or chocolate icing-covered pandoro cake can last anywhere between 4 and 6 months without going stale, as long as the packaging isn’t damaged. The pandoro with soft cream filling typically has a shorter shelf life, but its expiration date is still around three months, on average.

Once the packaging is open (whether intentionally or through damage), the cake's shelf life reduces drastically: it should be consumed within 7 to 10 days. This timeline is comparable to a freshly baked pandoro’s shelf life, which lasts around seven days. Again, pandoro with cream filling runs a higher risk of going spoiled, so it should be consumed faster, preferably within five days.

Pandoro can be safely kept at room temperature, but keeping it in the fridge can prolong its life a bit and keep it from going stale.

Can You Freeze a Pandoro?

Yes! Pandoro is one of those rare pastries that doesn’t decline in quality when frozen if properly stored and properly thawed. In fact, people often freeze it specifically to have an opportunity to enjoy it during spring and summer, when finding pandoro becomes more difficult.

Freezing prolongs pandoro’s shelf life for up to 4 months. Again, the pandoro with no filling can last much longer than the pandoro with cream filling: the latter is best consumed within the first two months.

You can freeze pandoro as is, whole, but we’d advise taking the extra few minutes to cut it into individual slices before you do. The slices will take less time to defrost and will allow you to control the process better, going a long way toward adequately preserving the texture. On the other hand, defrosting the entire pandoro cake will take a long time and might result in uneven texture if you’re using an oven: with edges going dry and rubbery before the center is fully defrosted.

Wrap each slice in parchment or wax paper and place it in an airtight container before freezing. 

The best way to defrost pandoro cake is to keep it in the fridge or at room temperature overnight: this will ensure it thaws evenly and doesn’t get dry. But if you need a quicker option, then pop it into the oven at 200°F for about 3, check if it’s thawed, and if not, pop it back for another 2-3 minutes.

Check out Yummy Bazaar’s Pandoro (and Panettone) Assortment for More Italian Christmas Desserts!

Yummy Bazaar hosts one of the largest online assortments of authentic, gourmet-quality Italian pandoro and panettone. You can find everything from classic sugar-dusted pandoro, to more modern versions with chocolate icing or pistachio cream, to more original takes on the traditional dessert with various uniquely flavored fillings like sambuca, tiramisu, and limoncello. If you wish to assemble a traditional Christmas spread but at the same time wish to surprise your guests with original holiday foods, then pandoro, with its long history but relatively recent-found fame in the US, is a great option! Simply choose the one that strikes your fancy the most, and we’ll deliver it right to your doorstep!

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Felipe Tozier

Felipe Tozier

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