Christmas is over, so you might ask why I’m focusing on the classic Italian holiday bread panettone. I just recently discovered I’m not alone in buying enough to cover the holidays and have some squirreled away for later. Maybe a lot later.
Panettone is the unique Italian domed holiday bread birthed in Milan. The word “pane” means bread, “one” is a suffix meaning “big.” Panettone means “big bread,” and it is characterized by a dough so heavily enriched it may as well be cake. It has a unique open crumb structure that is lightly studded with raisins and candied fruit, chiefly citrus. It is not a fruitcake but more like a brioche on steroids. Modern iterations also include cream fillings of various flavors, chocolate, and candied chestnuts, or specialty cherries. The packaging is part of the fun of panettone, and at the high end, contributes to a higher price. When you purchase one for the holidays, you are basically buying yourself a treat that is wrapped as a present.
But what I’d like to focus on is that unique interior structure. If you’ve ever made dough with a starter, you understand how the difficulty increases once you add the enrichment of fats to the dough. In order to achieve the characteristic high dome of a panettone and the pattern of open holes throughout the crumb, the gluten needs to be strong enough to hold it up, yet tender enough to allow the finished product to practically melt in your mouth. Panettone rises slowly over several days, with many steps of folding/kneading in between. The sweet dough is enriched with butter and egg yolks, which lend their sunny color. Ask any master panettone maker what gives their masterpiece its characteristic flavor and they will say the mother dough, aka a starter, then a pre-ferment. That rich mother dough and the addition of honey is how a panettone has such a shelf life of three to four months.
Over the holidays, you probably shared your panettone with friends and family, gobbling the whole thing up in a day. The extra one is like a stash of hoarded chocolate that you may not want to share. At least not with many people. After the holidays typically all the panettone left in retail shops goes on sale. It’s an opportunity to keep your stash supplied. It’s also an opportunity to do more than just eat slices of it. Make panettone French toast from this David Lebovitz recipe. Or make bread pudding, but make it even more luxurious by studding the mixture with chunks of good chocolate. Or you can just eat it along with some hot tea or a strong cup of milky coffee, dipping and slurping as you go.
Just so you can see how extraordinary the gluten is in the enriched panettone dough, here is one of my favorite videos of a home baker making panettone.