Panettone: The story of Italian Christmas Cake

by Lael Hazan on December 16, 2010

Once upon a time, a handsome young Milanese noble, Ugheto Atellani, loved falconry.  His favorite place to fly his falcons was near a poor baker’s shop.  As he sat under a fig tree, waiting for his falcons, he could see the beautiful baker’s daughter, Adalgisa, hard at work.  Of course, Ugheto fell in love and couldn’t bear to see the object of his love, work so hard for so little.  He disguised himself as a peasant and offered to work for the baker for free.  He discovered he enjoyed baking; however, he didn’t feel the coarse corn cakes that the baker made for Christmas were worthy of the work Adalgisa put into them.  In order to buy the fine flour and eggs he had been accustomed to as a noble, Ugheto sold his beloved falcons.  He added dried grapes and candied fruits.  Word of the wonderful bread spread and the baker became very successful.  Ugheto removed his disguise to revealing the nobleman he was and asked for Adalgisa’s hand in marriage.  The duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza arranged the wedding, to which Leonardo da Vinci came as a guest.   Of course, the cake-like bread was featured at the wedding and became known as Pan de Ton which, in local dialect, means “the bread of luxury”.

There are many legends as to the origins of panettone, a sweet bread that is enjoyed during the Christmas and New Year’s holidays in Italy. Traditionally, it is made from a sour dough starter and rises at least three times.   Often it is in the shape of the cupola at the top of a church with a tall base and fluffy top.

As in all recipes Italian, everyone believes that either they or their mother makes it the best.  In the case of panettone the competition almost came to blows in the 1930’s.  Trying to out produce each other, two Milanese bakeries Motta & Alemagna, discovered how to make the cakes industrially.  Ironically, both of these bakeries are now owned by a third, Bauli.  Because of the competition, the price of panettone, once only eaten by the wealthy dropped and became inexpensive enough for everyone to enjoy it at Christmas.  As Italians immigrated to other parts of the world, they brought panettone with them and it now can be found everywhere.

Because of the time that it takes to prepare, 3 days to a week, and the expense of the various ingredients, most people do not make their own panettone.  It is purchased and given as precious Christmas gifts.   Premium manufacturers are admired and their panettone can be quite costly.   Loison, a company that has been producing panettone for three generations, makes our family’s favorite panettone.   They produce 81 varieties of panettone, many of which can be purchased online at Life Style. One of our favorites is infused with Maculan’s sweet Torcolato dessert wine.

We are thrilled that this year Loison and their distributor, Fruit of the Boot, are sponsoring a giveaway for those who would like to taste this wonderful product!

Traditionally, Italians eat a slice of panettone for breakfast, but there are other ways it can be served.  It is delicious with whipped cream.  You can either serve it on the side or, as my in-laws do, fill the inside of the panettone with it.   You cut off the top and carve a cavity in the base, keeping all the precious insides for another time, of course.  Then fill the cavity with whipped cream and put the top back on.  When you serve it, it looks like a regular panettone, but your guests are in for a surprise when you slice it!

Comments on this entry are closed.

pavithra December 24, 2010 at 10:13 am

I was planning to do Panettone this year but ended with Dundee cake. Wish you Merry Christmas !!!

Jamie December 22, 2010 at 7:29 am

I love this story. The only one I know is the wonderful book by Tomi de Paolo called Panettone which we read to our boys a million times. I love Panettone and Pandoro and keep promising myself I’ll make it and then end up buying one!

Marc @ NoRecipes December 21, 2010 at 11:45 am

I love food with a story behind it. This one put a smile on my face. Thanks:-)

LeeYong December 18, 2010 at 9:09 am

This pannettone looks wonderful – beautifully studded with fruits and airy too! Any recommendations as far as a pannettone recipe to try? Thank you!

Lael Hazan December 18, 2010 at 1:46 pm

Due to the expense of the ingredients and that length of time to make it (some say 3 days to a week) most of us purchase our panettone from reputable bakeries. Therefore, I haven’t tried any of the recipes out there and am loath to suggest one to you. However, The Sorelle Simili have a recipe for Il Pandoro, a similar sweet bread without the candied fruit. Their recipes always turn out lovely.

Thank you for your comment.

Lael Hazan

Allison Silver December 17, 2010 at 8:26 pm

I like it toasted.

Allison Silver December 17, 2010 at 8:26 pm

I love learning the history of foods.

Brook - Learn To Preserve December 16, 2010 at 6:52 pm

Thank you for this wonderful story. It brought back memories. I will never forget picking up my oldest son – 19 at the time — at SeaTac airport one snowy night, close to midnight. He had just spent the Thanksgiving holidays in NYC, his first trip to the Big Apple. I was sitting in our old truck, waiting for him. There were very few people at the airport at that hour. I saw him walking from quite a distance away. He was carrying a big shiny pink package. He had brought back a present for me, the food lover. It was the most beautiful panettone I have ever seen! It was so big and fragile he decided to carry it on his lap for the entire flight home.
That’s my sweet Italian boy!

Lael Hazan December 18, 2010 at 1:47 pm

Thank you for sharing your wonderful story. Beautiful!

Maris (In Good Taste December 16, 2010 at 6:16 pm

These are beautiful. I’ve never made Panettone but maybe I should try one this year! I bet it would be amazing as french toast or bread pudding.

Lael Hazan December 18, 2010 at 1:48 pm

It is great as both toast or pudding. Check out our giveaway next week. It will include a book on all things panettone!

Rosa December 16, 2010 at 2:33 pm

I love that speciality and have made it quite a few times with success. Those look delicious!



Lael Hazan December 16, 2010 at 2:46 pm

Wow! I’m impressed that you’ve made it. I’ve never attempted it. I saw your blog post on it. I’d never heard your version of the story before.

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