Christmas in Italy: the origin of Panettone, Italian’s typical Christmas cake

December 21, 2015

The origin of Panettone, Italy’s typical Christmas cake, is a sort of a dilemma. According to various sources, the term “panettone” derives from “Pan de Toni” (Toni’s bread): Toni, a scullion at the service of Ludovico il Moro, could have invented the most traditional and famous Christmas cake in Italy after inadvertently burning a sweet prepared for his master’s feast.

The young man decided then to knead some leftover yeast with flour, eggs, sugar, raisins and candied fruit, obtaining - for the first time in history - the soft and leavened cake that, still today, Italians love to eat during Christmas times.

This is just one of the many legends surrounding the Panettone. Probably, the true origin of the cake dates back to the Middle Ages, when people used to celebrate Christmas with a bread richer than the one they ate every day.

According to a manuscript of late Fifteenth century by Giorgio Valagussa, a tutor for the Sforza’s family in Milan, on Christmas Eve people loved to celebrate a ritual called “rito del ciocco”: a piece of wood was placed in the fireplace and three wheat breads were served on the table - it has to be pointed out that wheat was very precious and expensive at that time!. After that, the head of the family served a slice to all guests, while a last slice was kept aside for the following year as a sign of continuity.

What seems to be true is that up to 1395 all bakeries in Milan with the exception of Rosti, the richest bakery in town and supplier of the noble families, were allowed to bake white bread just for Christmas, as a gift to their customers.

Even today, the recipe for the Panettone still respects the ancient tradition: the preparation takes 3 days to a week, and artisanal manufacturers are considered with high regard. Their cake is still considered a top level gift for the preciousness of its ingredients.

But what is Panettone, anyway? This traditional cake is cylindrical in shape with a domed top. It should always be taller than it is wide, with a soft and airy interior beneath a dark exterior. Modern versions are now available with the fruit being replaced by chocolate, however traditionally it should be citrus flavored fruit bread.

The traditional version contains candied orange, citron, and lemon zest, as well as raisins, which are added dry and not soaked. It is served in slices, vertically cut, accompanied with sweet hot beverages or a sweet wine, such as Asti or Moscato d'Asti. In some regions of Italy, the panettone is served with crema di mascarpone, a cream made from mascarpone, eggs, sometimes dried or candied fruits, and typically a sweet liqueur such as amaretto.

Our advice? If you happen to travel to Italy during Christmas time, don’t miss the opportunity to taste a slice of a hand-made, artisanal Panettone. Just close your eyes and savor the soft dough slowly, gently. Now listen: you’re traveling back in times, for centuries. See the splendor only Italy can give, even through a bite of a simple sweet bread.

Merry Christmas!

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