The tradition of eating special cakes at Christmas and New Year spans cultures. Traditionally, ingredients like honey, nuts and dried fruit were expensive rather than a daily staple, so you luxuriated in them once a year – then waited another 12 months before you could enjoy them again. Just like Anglo-Saxon culture only indulges in Christmas pudding once a year, most other cultures also have their seasonal cakes.
Italians grow up eating panettone at Christmas. While you can now find the fluffy, brioche-like cake in most supermarkets, they don’t compare to an artisan product made with speciality ingredients.
Paolo Gatto of PaRi Pasticceria in Sydney recently returned from Milan representing Australia in the Panettone World Championships. He makes his panettone using imported flour along with citrus sourced from his home town of Sicily, while the sultanas are from Australia. According to him, a good panettone takes “at least 36 hours and more than two days”.
“We start from a yeast mother, some are generations old that are passed down. It’s essential for a good panettone,” he says.
According to him, a good panettone takes “at least 36 hours and more than two days”.
He believes the signs of a good panettone are smell and texture. “Grab the panettone with two hands and smell it, you can feel the fresh butter and the crispiness on top. When you open it, you see the little bubbles on top and the product inside is soft, with moist sultanas and the softness of the candied fruit. It’s this texture which is the big difference between commercial and traditional panettone.”
In Italy, panettone is eaten from the first week of December through to January. “It’s a daily thing, we eat it from breakfast to after dinner. When you build the Christmas tree, the first thing you put underneath is the panettone and you cut it on Christmas Eve, too.”
French king cake or galette des rois
This is eaten on the Epiphany, or the 12th day of Christmas, which falls on January 6, in France. Chef Guillaume Brahimi says this simple cake of puff pastry and frangipane cream is made special by a “fève” or charm baked inside the cake.
“When you buy it, they give you a paper crown,” he says. “Tradition is, the youngest person goes under the table, somebody will cut the cake and the youngest person will say this slice is for this person and the person who gets the fève is the king and gets the crown.
“In France, being a king is not such a good thing, but it’s a celebration. This cake, everyone in France loves it.”
The puff pastry is complicated, Brahimi says it would take about five days to do it properly, so buying it is part of the tradition. “Going to the boulangerie and smelling the frangipane mix with the puff pastry, it is all part of it. It used to be just on January 6, but now it’s expanded and you eat it from the 6th to the end of January.”
Get this vasilopita recipe here.
This New Year’s Day cake or bread is an important tradition of the Greek Orthodox Church and is a celebration of family. Aki Daikos of Alevri Greek bakery in Sydney says the word vasilopita means “sweet bread of basil”. It’s named for Saint Basil’s Feast Day, which also falls on New Year’s Day, and doesn’t contain the herb, rather the flavours are of orange and vanilla.
“When the vasilopita is prepared, a coin is baked into it,” Daikos says. “Sweet flavouring is added to the bread which symbolises the sweetness and joy of life everlasting and the hope that the New Year will be filled with the sweetness of life, liberty, health, and happiness."
“The bread is traditionally cut by the senior member of the family, and the individual who receives the portion [that] contains the coin is considered blessed for the coming year," he adds. “It is a family celebration and such a wonderful way to begin each New Year.”
The bread is mostly made into large loaves, but I like making individual dinner rolls for everyone around the table or serving them for afternoon tea with a good strong coffee, or even alongside a hearty wintery soup.
Not made with actual panettone, but the flavours panettone is known and loved for: orange, sultanas, dates, vanilla and Marsala.
My friend Toni makes these super-cute mini individual versions of panettone, which are sure to become a Christmas favourite in your home too.
This would be a perfect fancy breakfast to have cooked on a barbecue or over an open fire. Eat it outside while drinking lots of strong black coffee or sipping summer holiday breakfast Champagne.
A vasilopita is a traditional Greek cake or bread prepared and enjoyed to celebrate the New Year. Hidden inside the cake is a gold coin wrapped in foil and the family member who is fortunate enough to receive the coin in their slice is said to have good luck for the rest of the year.