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    Published Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2000, in the San Jose Mercury News

    Specialties of the season

    Special to the Mercury News

    As I carry the dainty one-pound box to the express check-out line, it
    suddenly reminds me of the latest designer handbags I've seen in all
    the department stores. The shape and feel are strikingly similar. And
    it's made in Italy, Milan in fact, world-renowned center of
    cutting-edge design.

    But it's not a designer handbag. It's a panettone.

    Suddenly there are scores of cheerful panettoni (the Italian plural
    of panettone) beckoning from the supermarket shelves. There are tiny
    ornament-sized boxes waiting to be hung on Christmas trees; panettoni
    tucked in holiday tins awash in wintry scenes and Santa Clauses; and
    elegant gift panettoni garbed in red and blue foils and festooned
    with golden ribbons.

    A sweet yeast bread that originated in Milan, panettone is
    inextricably linked with Christmas in Italy. Often compared to French
    brioche, a good panettone is light and airy and chock-full of
    seasonal delights, including candied fruits, raisins and candied
    orange and lemon peels.

    Americans are adopting this pleasurable Italian food custom.
    According to the latest figures from the Italian Trade Commission,
    pastry imports to the United States grew by 78 percent from 1996 to

    Importer Frank Lettieri, owner of Lettieri and Co. in South San
    Francisco, has observed the growth over the past several years.
    ``Panettoni used to be available at only a few places like Macy's
    Cellar and Neiman Marcus. Now you can find it everywhere,'' he says.

    Indeed, it's even turning up in drugstores this holiday season.

    Panettone (pronounced pa-neh-TOE-neh) has a long history, and there
    is seemingly no end to the number of stories surrounding its
    creation. The word itself means big or strong bread. While big likely
    refers to its shape, strong suggests the use of special, enriching

    Carol Field, author of ``The Italian Baker,'' writes that some
    scholars have traced panettone to the Middle Ages, when bakers in
    Italy were separated into two groups. Bakers for the poor used
    millet, and bakers for the rich used wheat flour. It was only during
    the Christmas holidays that bakers for the poor were allowed to make
    a more opulent bread containing eggs, sugar, butter, candied fruit
    and raisins, which became known as pan di tono, or rich and fancy

    But the most famous legends surrounding panettoni are all variations
    on the theme of love. One states that it was made popular by a
    Milanese baker named Antonio who created panettone as a special gift
    to woo a woman who walked past his bakery every day. After toiling
    for months, he created a splendid bread that enticed her inside. When
    their eyes met, he fell out of love with her. But his invention ``Pan
    di Toni'' (or Toni's bread) became famous throughout Italy.

    Another variation of the story involves Antonio's daughter.
    Supposedly she had a suitor who wished to marry her and provided her
    poor baker father with the very best flour, eggs, butter and fruits.
    The baker's resulting creation became hugely popular. And this time
    there is a happier ending -- the suitor won the baker's daughter.

    Stories aside, it is well documented that Angelo Motta founded a
    baking company in Milan in 1921 and began making panettoni. Motta
    introduced two important characteristics that are still critical to
    panettoni today. He revived an old, natural ``sponge'' leavening
    technique and began using the unique molds that give the bread its
    dramatic, dome-shaped top.

    His panettone was a great success, and the following year Motta's
    friend, Gioacchino Alemagna, created a competing company. Motta and
    Alemagna are still considered among Italy's finest brands, though
    Motta owns both now.

    Nurtured yeast starters

    The use of natural yeast is a significant benchmark in the production
    of a good panettone. Similar to sourdough, a natural yeast results in
    a panettone that rises much more slowly. Many rise for as long as 48
    hours, developing deeply complex flavors.

    The long leavening contributes to the lengthy shelf life of
    panettoni, some of which can be kept up to six months. The age of a
    manufacturer's starter is often a source of great pride, with some
    meticulously maintained for decades.

    Today, panettoni are baked in paper molds. Once completed, the
    panettoni remain in the molds, helping to preserve freshness.

    When purchasing panettone, be sure to check the ingredients. With
    almost 60 million pounds produced annually in Italy (as well as our
    own domestic versions), it shouldn't be a surprise that not all are
    of equal merit. Watch for inferior ingredients such as margarine
    rather than butter, powdered eggs instead of fresh, and an
    over-reliance on artificial flavorings.

    To ensure a high-quality product, the Association of Italian
    Confectionary Industries (AIDI) has asked the Italian government to
    recognize panettone as a specialty item deserving protection. If
    successful, only producers meeting strict standards will be able to
    identify their products as panettone. Among the brands meeting AIDI
    requirements are Alemagna, Bauli, Flamingi, Maina, Motta, Perugina,
    Le Tre Marie and Valentino.

    Importers feed markets

    It's easy for Bay Area residents to obtain excellent Italian
    panettone, thanks to businesses such as Lettieri's, one of the
    largest importers of panettone to the United States. This year,
    Lettieri expects to sell 1 million panettoni.

    Because of the quality of its product, Lettieri primarily imports the
    Maina brand. ``The company has not cut corners, like other Italian
    manufacturers,'' Lettieri says. ``Maina uses a live sourdough
    starter, which is 40 years old, and quality ingredients like French
    butter. After baking, the panettoni are hung upside down for eight to
    10 hours to preserve an airy texture.

    ``But where Maina really stands out is its moistness. In comparison,
    many panettoni are dry.''

    Maina's Gran Panettone won first place in the ``Outstanding Baked
    Goods'' category at the International Fancy Food and Confection Show
    in New York last summer. And Lettieri just received his first
    shipment of organic panettone, Maina's new Tutto Natura, which are
    destined for local Whole Foods markets.

    Bay Area bakeries are embracing panettone with a passion. Grace
    Baking, located in Richmond in the East Bay, produces a domestic
    panettone year-round. Glenn Mitchell, Grace's president and head
    baker, follows traditional methods.

    ``I find many panettoni rely too much on flavorings. We use two
    starters -- a levain, similar to sourdough, and a sponge,'' Mitchell
    says. ``As a bread baker, I strive to impart a fermentation flavor to
    our panettone. I want to taste it. The whole process from start to
    finish takes around 56 hours.''

    Il Fornaio, the chain of Italian restaurants and bakeries, bakes
    panettone six weeks each year from Thanksgiving to New Year's. ``We
    like to keep it special,'' head baker Jan Schat says.

    Like many Bay Area chefs, Schat is committed to top-quality
    ingredients. He isn't fond of the use by some Italian manufacturers
    of ``a synthetic panettone essence that gives the bread an almost
    flowery flavor.'' Instead, Schat uses lemon and orange oils.

    Emporio Rulli, an Italian cafe in Larkspur in Marin County, has
    garnered lavish praise from local and national food critics. Chef and
    owner Gary Rulli honed his craft while serving as an apprentice in a
    Milanese pastry shop. He makes two varieties of panettone year-round,
    using authentic recipes that have been handed down for generations.
    His natural yeast starter was given to him by his culinary mentor in
    Italy over a decade ago. A piece of the mother dough is found in
    every loaf of panettone Rulli makes.

    Christmas extended

    If you are as wistful about the ending of the holiday season as I
    always am, why not extend it with a custom described to me recently
    by my Italian brother-in-law? His family always saved a portion of
    the Christmas panettone for eating on Feb. 3, the Feast Day of San
    Biagio, the patron saint of the throat. By this time, the panettone
    probably proved a bit scratchy going down, but it was believed to
    possess healing powers and strengthen the throat for the coming year.
    Who couldn't use some of that during winter's cold and flu season?


    Serving such a versatile bread

    The traditional way of serving panettone in Italy is for dessert
    accompanied by a glass of spumante. But during the Christmas season,
    Italians are just as likely to have panettone for breakfast or an
    afternoon snack. Sliced and toasted, panettone is wonderful with a
    slathering of butter or mascarpone. Or warm it in the oven and serve
    with whipped cream. Leftovers make indulgent French toast and bread

    Glenn Mitchell's favorite way of preparing panettone is to slice and
    lightly toast it, then sprinkle it with powdered sugar and place
    briefly under the broiler. Remove and then top with a dollop of ice

    In ``Italy the Beautiful,'' Lorenza de'Medici describes a Milanese
    tradition of serving panettone stuffed with ice cream. She suggests
    cutting a cap from the top of the panettone, partially hollowing out
    the inside and then stuffing it with ice cream. Quickly replace the
    cap and serve.




    Frank Lettieri, owner of a South San Francisco-based import business,
    offers an anecdote regarding the Italian baking company Maina and a
    classic case of culinary cross-fertilization.

    ``A customer came by and asked if we sold a chocolate-chip panettone.
    I talked with Maina about it, and they began to make one. If it
    weren't for the American palate, there wouldn't be a chocolate-chip
    panettone being sold in Italy today. It's become very popular there.
    That's how products evolve.''

    Look it up

    For a history of panettone, look up the Italian Trade Commission at This fascinating site includes information on
    Italian food products, including cheeses, prosciutto, truffles and

    Panettone at home

    Home bakers may want to experiment with making panettone. Recipes
    appear in many cookbooks, including ``The Tra Vigne Cookbook'' by
    Michael Chiarello (Chronicle Books, 1999); ``Ultimate Bread'' by
    Ursula Ferrigno and Eric Treuille (DK Publishing, 1998); ``Bread for
    All Seasons'' by Beth Hensperger (Chronicle Books, 1995); ``La Dolce
    Vita'' by Michele Scicolone, William Morrow, 1990); ``The Italian
    Baker'' by Carol Field (HarperCollins, 1985); and ``Celebrating
    Italy'' by Carol Field (William Morrow, 1990).

    For recipes created for bread machines, try ``The Bread Machine
    Book'' by Marjie Lambert (Chartwell Books, 1996) and

    Shaping up

    Sur la Table sells both paper and metal panettone molds. In addition, offers several panettone molds, including fluted tin
    molds, glass pans and disposable parchment paper molds.


    Makes 1 loaf

    1/3 cup lukewarm water
    3/4 ounce (3 packages) active dry yeast
    1/4 cup sugar, divided use
    6 large egg yolks
    1 teaspoon vanilla extract
    1/4 teaspoon grated lemon peel
    1/2 teaspoon salt
    2 1/4 to 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
    8 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
    1/3 cup chopped candied orange peel
    1/3 cup chopped candied lemon peel
    1/2 cup dark raisins
    1/2 cup golden raisins
    1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted

    Place the lukewarm (about 80 degrees) water in small bowl. Sprinkle
    yeast and 1 tablespoon sugar over it. Stir to dissolve, then let
    stand 15 minutes, until yeast is bubbly.

    Put egg yolks, vanilla, lemon peel, salt and rest of sugar in a large
    mixing bowl. Add yeast and mix well. Gradually add 1 1/2 cups flour.
    Stir until combined. Add butter and mix until dough becomes a sticky
    ball. Gradually mix in 1/2 cup more flour. Turn dough out onto
    floured board. Knead dough with 1/4 to 1/2 cup more flour until it is
    no longer sticky to the touch. Then knead 10 minutes more, until it
    is smooth and elastic.

    Shape dough into ball and place in large bowl. Cover and put in warm
    spot (80 to 90 degrees) for 1 hour, or until doubled in volume. While
    dough is rising, finely chop candied orange and lemon peels. Mix with
    dark and golden raisins and set aside. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

    Punch down dough and knead in candied peels and raisins. Shape dough
    into ball and place on buttered baking sheet. Cut a cross on top of
    ball. Cut a collar out of parchment or heavy brown paper about 5
    inches wide and 22 inches long. Butter one side and wrap it loosely
    around dough (to allow for some expansion). Fasten ends of collar
    with paper clip and set loaf in warm place for second rise. Allow
    bread to expand for 30-45 minutes, or until again doubled in volume.

    Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Brush top of dough with some of melted
    butter. Bake 10 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees.
    Brush top again with melted butter and bake 30 to 35 minutes more.
    The panettone is done when it is brown on outside and sounds hollow
    when bottom is tapped.

    Per serving: calories, g protein, g fat ( g saturated), g
    carbohydrate, mg sodium, mg cholesterol, g dietary fiber.

    From ``Chez Panisse Cooking'' by Paul Bertolli with Alice Waters,
    Random House, 1998

    List of Ingredients





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