Panettone: Italy's Favorite Christmas Cake

One of the most widely enjoyed Christmas cakes in Italy is the light golden cake full of raisins or candied citrus called panettone.

Italians consider panettone to be very difficult to make at home and they generally prefer to buy it from bakeries in Milan, where it originated, and other cities and towns throughout the country. It is also now available outside of Italy and, if you cannot be in Italy for the holidays, brands like Bauli create and ship packaged panettone to locations in the US and abroad.

Artisanal panettone Christmas cakeAn artisanal version of panettone, the traditional Christmas cake from Milan, Italy. © Hemera/ThinkStock.

Indications of high quality panettone are, naturally, the flavor, the softness, and abundance of raisins or candied fruit. Also indicative is the color, which should be a buttery yellow inside and lightly browned on top, and the leavening—the cake should bulge out generously over the top edge of the paper containers. Before eating, some people like to heat the cake for a few minutes in a lukewarm oven or on the radiator in order to soften it. Panettone is perfect accompanied by a good glass of spumante, or sparkling wine. It is best to preserve your panettone in the plastic bag it comes in, so it won't dry out.

There are many stories about the origination of panettone. The most popular tale is of a young Milanese nobleman, Ughetto degli Atellani, who fell in love with the daughter of a poor baker named Toni. Legend has it that to impress the girl's father, the nobleman disguised himself as a baker and invented a sweet bread with dried raisins, candied lemon, and orange peel. The rare delicacy came out of the oven with a top shaped like a church dome.

The girl’s father was not the only one who was pleased. After tasting the bread, the Duke of Milan, Ludovico il Moro Sforza, encouraged the introduction of the new bread in the community. This new light version of a fruitcake-like bread enjoyed enormous success, with people coming to the bakery nonstop to purchase the magnificent Pan de Toni (or Toni’s bread). Some historians claim that “pan del ton”, meaning luxury bread in Milanese dialect, has been referenced since the 1300s. Regardless of origin, panettone has become the Christmas cake of choice throughout Italy.

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