Panettone

Possibly the most famous symbol of Italian Christmas worldwide, panettone is a leavened, candied soft bread typical of the city of Milano, and taken by expats pretty much anywhere Italians have settled. The first traces of this delicacy appeared in ancient Roman times, where fluffy cakes with honey were rare but well-known. They are recorded in several artworks, so we have a pretty precise idea of their looks and composition.

Originally panettone was shorter than the type pictured above. The panettone genovese still traditionally made in Genoa is very close to the medieval and renaissance version, for example. The basic recipe evolved through time with the addition of raisin, vanilla then candied orange and citron rinds. The real innovation came however in 1919 by the hand of the Milanese baker Angelo Motta, who invented a long curing process where the dough is leavened three times and kneaded two over several days. The result is the especially soft cake you can find in shops today.

Motta had to fight hard to keep control of his creation, especially with another Milanese baker called Alemagna. The competition between them lasted almost one century, leading to better and better panettoni (the plural form of the name) and a pricing war to make each cake the most convenient. Come the end of WWII, panettone was the most affordable – and tastiest – sweet on the war-weary market: this is what sealed the fate of this delicacy as a Christmas treat.

 

There are dozens of urban legends about the origin of panettone, all of them very elaborate and totally bunk. If you want to show off at the family table with your knowledge of Italian traditions, though, you should be aware of the panettone di san Biagio (Saint Biagio’s panettone) tradition, typical of Milano. This consists in leaving one Christmas panettone slice aside until February 3rd, day of St. Biagio, to be eaten at breakfast for luck and “to protect from colds”. Italian bakeries use to put their leftover production on sale just before that day – and the panettoni are as tasty as ever.