Panettone is a curious thing for me, as, I assume, it is for many people who’ve spent their childhoods in Georgia (the country, not the state). See, when this traditional Italian Christmas treat hit the supermarket shelves the first time, clad in (what seemed, at the time) luxurious bright red thick cardboard boxes, it did so during the Easter holidays, not Christmas.
I don’t know who decided to stack the isles with Christmas cake in the middle of spring was a bright idea, but their gamble paid off: Panettone was firmly associated with Easter, not Christmas, for almost a couple of decades. In fact, for people not that interested in the history behind this sweet bread, it still is to some degree.
All because Panettone bread - tall, bright yellow on the inside, generously filled with raisins and dried fruit pieces - is very similar to our Easter cake, Kulich.
Let me tell you, finding out I’ve lived a lie in my mid-20s, when I considered myself a well-versed epicure by that point, was not a fun experience. Whoever decided the looks were similar enough to dupe the entire country - you were right, sir. Kudos to you!
But time does bring all truth to the forefront (even if it decides to take two decades), and the story (or, more like, stories) behind the sweet Panettone bread were more interesting to read about than I’d ever thought. So maybe I should be a little thankful for being duped in the first place because I’d never do my little research without and never do this article if I knew the truth from the beginning.
As is characteristic of Italy during the middle ages, it’s an exciting story full of romance, royals, and one-upmanship. I’m kinda surprised there’s no backstabbing and revenge involved, but hey, you can’t have everything.
Buckle up, everyone. This one’s going to be a doozy.
What is Panettone?
Panettone is one of the most famous Italian Christmas desserts, well-beloved all across the world, from Europe to the Americas to Australia to Africa. It’s originally from Milan, with most stories pointing at the 15th century as its date of origin.
Panettone bread has a cylindrical form and is around 4.5 to 6 inches in height. The dough is made mainly with simple ingredients: flour, butter, eggs, and sugar, but the characteristic fluffiness is hard to achieve, with the leavening process taking days.
Panettone dough commonly contains candied citrus and raisins. It’s usually plain, but varieties covered in chocolate have become popular in the last couple of decades. Panettone is traditionally served cut vertically in wedges, accompanied by a hot drink. In some regions, it’s additionally garnished with a dollop of Crema al Mascarpone.
While Panettone bread hasn’t been awarded a protected status (yet), most Italian bakeries adhere to strict guidelines when creating their recipes. An authentic Panettone must contain at least 20% candied fruit, 16% butter, and eggs that are at least 4% yolk.
Italian Agriculture Ministry has been trying to obtain the PDO status for the bread, mainly to protect it from associations from sub-par American alternatives. Alas, their efforts have yet to bear any fruits.
The History of Panettone:
If there was ever anyone who knew the true origins of this seminal Italian Christmas treat, they took it to their grave. There are only two things we know for sure:
First, it’s not so much an independent creation as a luxurious revamped version of an old leavened honey-sweetened cake made as early as the Roman Empire days.
Second, while there are many theories about who created the cake in its current form, the theorists generally agree that it was during the late 15th century. At this time, butter, sugar, and eggs started being incorporated into baking more actively, despite still bearing the halo of “luxury ingredients.”
Now, as to who created Panettone, that’s an ongoing debate:
Story #1: The Romantic One
Now would Panettone bread be a truly Italian treat if it didn’t have a romantic legend attached to it?
According to one of the most famous stories attached to Panettone, it was invented by a 15th-century Milanese nobleman to win the hand of a baker’s beautiful daughter. Adalgisa was her name, and she caught the eye of a well-off falcon trainer named Ughetto while working at her father’s bakery.
As is seemly for a hot-blooded Italian man in love, Ughetto decided that simply asking the baker for his daughter’s hand was a no-no. Instead, he would stage a Shakespearean rouse and pose as a poor peasant baker, working by his love’s side to win her heart.
There was just one downside to Ughetto’s entire plan: the bakery was struggling, with Adalgisa and her father (and now Ughetto as well) working hard from sun up to sun down to keep it afloat.
No time for romancing the beautiful maiden when you have to slave away by the oven 16 hours a day. If Ughetto wanted to get Adalgisa alone for, I don’t know, a poetry-reading session or, more likely, a quiet necking in a dark corner away from her father, he needed to figure out how to get her off work for a bit, and he needed to do it fast.
His solution was risky, but a gamble worth taking with the prospect of marrying Adalgisa floating ahead if it paid off: create a bread so tasty that the customers just can’t stop themselves from coming back for it, even if it costs more than strictly sensible.
So he decided to make a more decadent, sweeter, fluffier loaf by adding butter, sugar, and eggs - luxury ingredients only available to upperclassmen at that point - to the mixture. He was so dedicated to the idea that he even sold some of his beloved falcons. Having already become a proficient baker at that point, he mixed the dough himself and added some candied fruit and raisins as the final touch. And his gamble paid off! The bakery was saved, and the old baker let him and Adalgisa wed (after, presumably, she consented that he was worth his salt and, thus, her hand).
I would love this story to be true just because it’s so sweet. But there’s one problem: Ughett isn’t a name; it means “raisin” in the Milanese dialect. Alas, more points to this story being just a neat little fairy tale than truth.
Story #2: The Royal Party One
This one is, again, largely apocryphal, though with a bit more chance of being true than the previous one. And it, too, comes with a lot of romance and drama because Italians.
According to this story, Panettone got its name in honor of a scullery boy named Toni, who saved the Head Chef from going headless with some quick thinking.
The year was 1495, and the Duke of Milan, Ludovico il Moro, was throwing a lavish Christmas party. The affair was painstakingly planned to make the Duke seem like the most powerful and wealthy person in the whole of Italy. One of the most critical parts of the entire endeavor was a complicated 12-course Christmas dinner, with each course from appetizers to dessert under a different team of Chefs. Considering the amount of money the Duke spent on the whole shindig, the chances of him forgiving any mistakes weren’t even minuscule; they were non-existent.
But now, what kind of a hot-blooded Italian man would one be not to risk their lives for love? Especially when the love was married to a noble, who could also get his head for the affair. Head Pastry Chef was certainly a hot-blooded Italian man, so when he got a chance to get his great love, a nobleman’s beautiful wife, alone in a dark passageway, he took it.
The nobleman’s wife was apparently just as enthusiastic as the Head Chef because their kissing session lasted long enough for the dessert to start burning. At this point, the aforementioned Toni reluctantly interrupted the lovebirds to inform his boss about the disaster.
The Head Chef panicked. The dough for his planned dessert required three whole days to rest. The Duke was calling for the dessert here and now. The chances of going from head to headless were rapidly rising.
Toni, accustomed to working with meager ingredients, rose to the occasion: he took the leftover dough, enriched it with more butter and sugar, added some citrus peel and raisins (apparently the only ingredients left in the kitchen at that point), and threw the cake into the oven for a quick bake.
Without other options, the Head Chef presented the Duke and his guests with Toni’s creation, which was luckily a hit. So the Chef got to keep his head, and the bread got its name to honor his unlikely savior: Panettone apparently stands for pan di Toni, Toni’s bread.
Now that last part seems like a stretch if you ask me, but the rest could very well be true!
How Panettone Bread Took Over Christmas Worldwide:
As with many other Italian treats, the wildfire spread of Panettone bread is primarily due to Italian immigrants bringing a piece of their home wherever they go.
Panettone was essentially a homemade dessert in Italy itself until the 1920s. Two Milanese bakers, Angelo Motta and Gioacchino Alemagna, industrialized the Panettone production, turning the one-time luxury bread (pan de ton, as the 18th-century economist Pietro Verri referred to it) into a dessert everyone could enjoy.
Motta is also the one primarily responsible for the current cupola shape of the Panettone: to create his signature recipe, he made the dough rise for almost 20 hours and three different times. The multiple rising also gave Panettone a lighter texture than it used to have.
The competition between the two giant manufacturers benefitted the overall market. By the end of WWII, sweet bread was affordable for the lower class and quickly became one of the most oft-consumed holiday treats.
During these times, many Lombardians started immigrating to Latin America and brought Panettone with them. The sweet Italian bread quickly established itself as one of the most popular holiday treats, easily finding fans outside Italian communities. It’s particularly prevalent in Argentina, Brazil, and Chile, but other South American countries, like Ecuador, Colombia, Uruguay, Venezuela, etc., are also rather fond of Panettone.
The story repeated itself in other cases: wherever Italian immigrants went, they brought the tradition of eating Panettone during Christmas and New Year’s time with them, and the dessert quickly found love outside the community. It’s now no less famous in Easter Europe, the United States, Australia, or the UK, than its native Italy.
Some would even argue it has gone a full 360 degrees and once again become a luxury bread. Multiple artisanal bakeries and even luxury brands like Dolce & Gabbana produce their signature, decadent Panettones that are more opulent and grand than ever.Yummy Bazaar hosts one of the largest Panettone selections online, where you can find these decadent creations along with more traditional options and have them delivered right to your doorstep with ease!