where to buy in italy
collected magazine articles on Italian travel, food and culture

The King of Christmas Cakes

A towering, fluffy dome of panettone is an integral feature of any Italian Christmas. Delicious but difficult to make, this grand festive cake has attracted lots of legends, as Fleur Kinson discovers.

Big, bright boxes tied with shiny ribbons, piled high to make a perfect picture of bounty – what could be more in the spirit of Christmas? Anyone who’s ever been in Italy in the weeks before il Natale can’t have failed to admire the ubiquitous sight of boxes of panettone for sale, everywhere from cafés to bakeries to supermarkets and market stalls. Always stacked in opulent abundance, they are as decorative to any shopping scene as the twinkling bulbs strung overhead in the streets.
        It’s no wonder panettone makes such a popular gift. Who wouldn’t feel generous delivering such a fat, glossy box to a friend? And who wouldn’t want to receive one, and spend a few days leisurely working through the contents?  Originally a speciality of Lombardy in Italy’s north, panettone is now just as likely to feature in the Christmas feasting of central or southern Italy. Or Switzerland. Or, indeed, Latin America, where northern Italian immigrants introduced the big cake more than a hundred years ago and where it’s now such a Christmas staple that Italian bakers are seeking the cake’s DOC/DOP status, to protect themselves from South American competition!
        Few Italians bake panettone themselves at home, because it’s fiendishly tricky to make. You must beat the mixture till your arm nearly falls off, and proof the dough over several days. Ideally you must also hang the cake upside down to stretch while it cools – impractical in a normal domestic kitchen. The virtues of professionally-made panettone, meanwhile, are undeniable: an impossibly fluffy texture, a heavenly taste and aroma, and a long-lasting freshness. Not to mention a grand appearance. Put a full-sized panettone on the table and people sit up and take notice.

The classic panettone assumes the form of a tall dome – a large, cylindrical loaf almost a foot high and with roughly the same circumference. It’s a very light, not-overly-sweet brioche studded with melting sultanas and candied citrus fruit – soft, aromatic and delicious. There are variations on this now-quintessential idea of panettone. It can be made as individual buns, or baked in the shape of an octagon or a many-facetted star (like a pandoro). It can be made without the candied fruit, or without the sultanas, sometimes flavoured with cocoa instead, or coated in a thin shell of chocolate. Most unexpectedly, it can be made flat like focaccia, by purists wishing to honour the cake’s origins.
        Secretly, the people of Lombardy eat panettone at all times of the year, but elsewhere it’s exclusively a Christmas thing, or occasionally an Easter treat. A wintry northern Italian Christmas suits it well, as the Italians like to leave it on top of a radiator for a few minutes to intensify its aromas before they tuck in. Fat slices are then munched unadorned or doused with creams – mascarpone is traditional, but zabaglione or other flavoured dollops are also common. It’s washed down with hot drinks or sweet wines. Wrapped well and put away, it stays remarkably fresh for several days’ worth of festivities.
        But the current form wasn’t always how panettone looked and tasted. Like many classic Italian dishes, it saw a long, slow evolution over many centuries. More than most cakes, panettone has spawned a wealth of stories to explain its existence and its funny name. This being Italy, most of those tales concern romance and involve an audacious attempt to impress the object of one’s affection. Or they involve religious figures, that other Italian fixation...

One common legend speaks of a lovestruck 15th-century nobleman, Ughetto Atellani, who was smitten by a poor baker’s daughter. In some versions of the story her name is Antonia (‘Toni’ for short) and in other versions it’s her father who’s called Antonio (also ‘Toni’ for short). Ughetto dazzled the object of his affection and/or her father by lovingly baking a cake of the highest quality and calling it ‘Toni’s bread’ or ‘Pan di Toni’. Marriage swiftly followed, and Leonardo da Vinci was allegedly among the wedding guests. Hmmm.
        Another story talks of a young kitchen-boy who saved the day when a Sforza royal family Christmas feast looked like being ruined. Having accidentally burnt his own cakes to a cinder, the court cook had no dessert to offer the noble guests. While he was busy having a nervous breakdown, Toni the kitchen-boy stepped forth and threw together all the luxury ingredients he could find – eggs, butter, sugar, raisins. The guests hailed the cook as a genius, and the man admitted that the credit should go to young Toni instead. Another ‘Pan di Toni’ there.
        In more recent centuries, a certain Friar Antonio was said to have a special passion for the cake – then still in its low-rise form. The friar’s ridiculously high ecclesiastical hats inspired a gently-mocking cook to bake one in a similar shape and present it to him as, you guessed it, ‘Pan di Toni’. The name caught on, as did the new shape of the cake. Sometimes the ‘Toni’ of panettone isn’t a person at all. There are many historical references to ‘Pane di Ton’, which in Milanese dialect would have meant ‘bread of distinction’ or ‘bread of luxury’.
        Well, don’t you go believing any of it. The sadly prosaic truth is that panettone most probably just slowly evolved from a dark country bread typical of Lombardy back in the 10th or 11th century. On Christmas night, it was traditional to sprinkle some red wine and juniper onto the blazing hearth logs, then share out bread among the family. In medieval times, white flour became increasingly popular and so the Christmas bread took on a different hue. Over time, luxury ingredients such as eggs, sugar, raisins and candied fruit became increasingly available, and they got bunged into the Christmas bread too. Our modern idea of panettone was almost there.
        Panettone was as flat as focaccia until around the 1850s, when recipes including yeast started to appear. In the early 20th century, Angelo Motta started producing the cakes on an industrial scale, and it is most probably he who innovated the theatrically high dome shape and the meltingly fluffy texture, as he made his dough rise three times before baking. With Motta-brand panettone widely available, it was his shape and style of the cake that grew to become quintessential in the popular imagination.

Interestingly, the more fanciful legends of panettone’s origins tell us rather more about what was going on in the 19th-century Milanese psyche than what might or might not have occurred in the kitchens of Renaissance Lombardy. The various ‘Toni’ stories were all popularized in Milan during the 1800s, a period when the city was experiencing profound expansion as a wealthy centre of business. It’s no surprise that each of these colourful tales of panettone’s origin highlights an act of sudden invention and entrepreneurship, a good business idea which established a fortune of one kind or another. The ‘Toni’ stories were enthusiastically embraced because they fitted so well with the 19th-century Milanese citizens’ idea of themselves and their innovative part of the world.
        But what of the name, then? No Toni? No luxury? The true etymology of ‘panettone’ can now be revealed. It’s a study in suffixes. ‘Pane’ (bread) took the diminutive suffix ‘-etto’ to became ‘panetto’ or ‘little loaf’ – showing that the dish was once just a luxury bun, its ingredients too expensive to make anything bigger. When standards of wealth increased and the cake grew proportionally, ‘panetto’ took the augmentative suffix ‘-one’, making it ‘panettone’: the ‘big little loaf’! Thus the word contains a kind of Alice in Wonderland magic, the bread that shrank to miniature then grew enormous. ‘Pane’ (bread) + ‘-etto’ (little) + ‘-one’ (big). Mind-bogglingly, you can now pick up a ‘panettonino’ in some British cafés. A little big little loaf! Now there’s a mouthful.

                                                                             ©Fleur Kinson  2011


Where to Go in Italy