Published Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2000, in the San Jose Mercury News
Specialties of the season
U.S. EMBRACES COLORFUL ITALIAN BREAD
BY LINDA COLLERY
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
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.
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.
FUN WITH PANETTONE
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
www.italianmade.com. 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
Sur la Table sells both paper and metal panettone molds. In addition,
www.fantes.com 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