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!