Panettone! Tall, crisp Milanese brioches, studded with homemade glazed chestnuts, golden raisins and citrus peel. Fragrant, tender and with a flavor you can only get by using 100% natural leavening. Perhaps the best thing I've ever baked. I'd like to share some photos and thoughts on the project.
I'd say that Panettone is the epitome of the baker's art. Particularly if you want to avoid shortcuts and make a completely traditional Panettone. Let's just say, it's not easy. But if you are an experienced baker, this is something you should try.
Panettone ("large bread") originated hundreds of years ago as a special holiday loaf, but that bread would probably bear little resemblance to the modern product. According to Wikipedia, the sweet, cupola-shaped cake was perfected in the 20th century by the Milanese baker "Motta who revolutionised the traditional panettone by giving it its tall domed shape by making the dough rise three times, or almost 20 hours, before cooking, giving it its now-familiar light texture." And it turns out that the traditional Panettone was always, until recently, exclusively made from natural yeasts.
Since I work with sourdough, naturally I was intrigued; twenty hours of rising with most sourdough formulas would result in... sour dough. However, it turns out that the Italian Panettone bakers have taken much the same approach to sourdough that appeals to me. They have learned that by feeding the culture liberally and controlling the acidity, a very active leavening culture develops, which does not create a "sour" end product. My kind of people.
In researching Panettone, I found that even many well-regarded and expensive Italian cakes are not always what they used to be. People are sometimes disappointed with the fruit, the flavor, and the texture of the brioche. When developing any product, it's important to know when to stop; feature creep is always a problem. While a fluffy texture is a good thing, the next step beyond fluffy is too light. Fruit is nice, but too much fruit distracts from the cake. And so on.
Everybody's got an Opinion
So are there any hard-and-fast standards for Panettone? The cupola shape that Wikipedia mentions is the inevitable result of the dough consistency and long rise, but I've seen some distinctly mushroom-shaped cakes, and some rather flattened ones (perhaps to fit in the packaging). Crumb texture is perhaps the most important standard, but this looks rather variable also, with a trend toward too-soft and dry. Flavor varies, but there is always a play between vanilla and orange, whether the source is actual fruit or Fiori di Sicilia. Overall, it seems that it would be difficult to have a Panettone bakeoff; people bring their traditions along with them, and there isn't a clear source of truth. It reminds me of figure skating.
In addition, it may be a problem that we expect the Panettone to make the trip over from Italy and still be nice to eat. Well, the use of sourdough starter and egg yolks in the dough help the keeping qualities, and you can expect this cake to be good for a week or more. But Panettone is so delicious, it's unlikely that you'll have to find out how long it will keep. Sliced and eaten warm, it's transcendent; cooled overnight and served with fruit, it's both beautiful and indescribably wonderful. I've read that people make leftover slices into toast or french toast, which are undoubtedly fantastic, too.
My Panettone is everything I'd hoped for (and of course it took some time to develop the formula). It's light, airy, yet sliceable. It's moist but not weak; it's just sweet enough, just everything enough. I can't think of anything I'd change; it's good.
If you decide to embark on a Panettone Project of your own, be prepared to work on it for several days. The starter must be revved up in advance, chestnuts (if you want to go all the way with this) must be roasted, peeled, and glazed, a recipe must be developed that suits your taste, and several builds over the course of a day must be sequentially worked. There's a lot to do, and not much margin for error.
But the process, while long, is rewarding in itself.
The scent of vanilla/orange Fiori di Sicilia fills the kitchen while the Panettones bake. And you start to feel that this has been very worthwhile, after all...
Have you made Panettone? Would you like to try? --Sue