If at Christmas, Americans enjoy pumpkin pie, the English have plum or Christmas pudding, all the Italians celebrate with panettone.
Just the mention of this sweet Milanese speciality conjures up the aromas of citrus, vanilla, candied fruit and typical italian Christmas. In Italy, giving panettone is not a simple act of kindness but a gesture rich in history and tradition.
Historically, it seems that the Panettone dates back as far as the Middle Ages when to celebrate Christmas, people would replace their daily bread with a richer recipe, a practice clearly documented in a 15th-century manuscript written by George Valagussa, one of the Sforza family’s tutors.
The name panettone can be explained in many ways: documents from the 1200s portrayed an early form of it enriched with honey, raisins, and even pumpkin. The writer Pietro Verri (1728-1797) called it “pane di tono” (luxury bread in old Milanese dialect).
However, there are many legends around the origin of Panettone.
One of the popular legend speak about a milanese nobleman and falconer named Ughetto degli Atellani who lived in the 1400s, and fell in love with Adalgisa, the daughter of a poor baker.
Ughetto’s family were unhappy with his choice and forbade him to marry such a lowly girl. But he want to continue seeing his lover, so Ughetto disguised himself as a baker and took a job at the bakery where one day after selling some of his falcons, he purchased butter and sugar and added it to the bakery’s bread.
Ughetto’s sweet bread became popular and the ailing bakery soon began to see better times, which pleased Adalgisa.
One day near Christmas, he added candied peel and raisins to the sweet bread and the popularity of his creation surpassed everything the bakery had ever produced before, in fact it became so popular that his family relented and gave their permission for the couple to marry.
According to another legend, one winter in the 15th-century, the Duke of Milano, Ludovico il Moro, threw a magnificent Christmas Eve feast for all of his royal court. The head pastry chef, who probably had been distracted by a forbidden romance with a nobleman’s beautiful wife he did not notice when his dessert began to smoke.
The chef had burned the dessert!
All that remained in the kitchen were a few scraps of orange peels, some raisins, and leftover dough from the dessert that had burned, but that had been resting for three days. The pastry chef began to panic, and it seems that the Duke was not known for his understanding nature.
Accustomed to making do with few ingredients, a scullery boy named Toni added the remaining sugar and butter to the cured dough, dotted it with the citrus and raisins, and tossed the mixture in round pans and into the oven. So the pastry chef presented the dessert to the Duke’s court, and quickly walked out.
Rich yet fluffy, the sweet dome-shaped cake was such a success across the court that the Duke called the pastry chef back into the hall to praise him. Amid applause, the pastry chef admitted that it was the pane di Toni (Toni’s bread) which, always according to the legend, eventually became known as panettone.
The third legend has a less romantic story and tells that the sweet bread wasn’t created by Ughetto, but by Sister Ughetta, a nun that wanted to please her fellow holy sisters at Christmas.
The story tells of a convent where the prospect of Christmas did little to lift the spirits of its poor and miserable nuns. One day, while was in the kitchen, Sister Ughetta created a cake out of kindness for her fellow sisters and added fruit and peel. Before baking, she took a knife and cut a crucifix shape in its top. If you are careful, you can see this cross still today, on the dome of some traditional panettone!
Just after the end of World War I, panettone became widely known thanks to a young Milanese baker, Angelo Motta, who gave his name to one of Italy ‘s now best-known brands. Motta revolutionized the traditional way of making panettone by giving it its tall domed shape by making the dough rise three times, before cooking.
Around 1925, the recipe was adapted by a competitor, Gioacchino Alemagna, who also gave his name to a popular brand that still exists today. The stiff competition between the two led to the growth of the industrial production of this traditional dessert.
Panettone is seen by the Italians as a traditional gift to take when visiting someone over the festive period.
A traditional panettone loaf is cylindrical in shape with a domed top. It should always be taller than it is wide, with a soft interior beneath a dark exterior. It is a traditional dessert stuffed with dried raisins and candied orange and lemon peel from Milan, that has been embraced by fans worldwide.
Although the traditional recipe remains a favorite, modern versions are now available with many variations with cream, chocolate and frosting, and even liqueurs such as limoncello.
Some Italians enjoy panettone with coffee in the morning, while others prefer it as a mid-day treat with a glass of wine or after dinner as dessert with a good sparkling wine.
Whichever way you choose to eat your panettone, it seems that some Italians consider it bad luck to remove the domed top and to consume it on your own!