• The Milanese panettone is loved world over. (PaRi Pasticceria)Source: PaRi Pasticceria
It's not uncommon for Italian households to have stockpiles of panettone. Never mind hoarding toilet paper; if panettone is on sale, trust Italians to buy in bulk.
Julia D'Orazio

29 Nov 2021 - 2:43 PM  UPDATED 29 Nov 2021 - 2:45 PM

Six. Eight. Twelve. I counted the number of beautifully packaged, tall dome-shaped boxes stacked in the corner at my grandmother's house. Inside, each box contained a towering, sweet cake-like bread. Same thing at my parents' place. Stored in their second kitchen is a leaning tower of panettone akin to a display at the end of a supermarket aisle. It's November, and they're ready to gift this culinary delicacy come Christmas time.

Italians have loved this dessert from Milan for centuries. It's typically made from butter, milk, eggs and dried fruit and is often eaten over Christmas and New Year. However, it's more than a symbol of Christmas – it's part of Italy's culinary culture.

It's the season for panettone.

Panettone's history

There are multiple stories – both facts and legends – about how the panettone came to be.

Wheat was once considered a luxurious ingredient. During the 14th and 15th centuries in Milan, Christmas was celebrated with loaves of special wheat bread. In 1395, it was imposed that all Milanese bakeries make pan de ton (bread of luxury) so that everyone could enjoy the sweetened wheat loaves for Christmas.

Panettone (Italian Christmas cake)

Originally called Pan de Ton or the "bread of luxury", panettone is a sweet, cake-like bread traditionally eaten during the Christmas and New Year holiday period in Italy. Aromatic with citrus and enriched with butter, it's always hard to stop at one piece!

There's also the story of Ughetto and Adalgisa, a young couple whose love was forbidden in part because of Adalgisa's family's failing bakery. Ughetto began working at the bakery where he baked a unique sweet bread that we now know as panettone. Call it the cake of love since not only was the sweet bread a success, but the couple were subsequently allowed to marry.

Mini panettone

However, perhaps the most entertaining story is the legend of a young 12-year-old kitchen boy named Toni in the court of Ludovico il Moro, also known as Ludovico Maria Sforza, the Duke of Milan. After accidentally scorching the Duke's Christmas Eve dessert, Toni frantically worked to cook something else with what he had: flour, eggs, sugar and sultanas. The result was a large, soft and sweet loaf that won the duke's approval and went on to become the court's preferred sweet bread, hence the name pan de Toni (panettone). 

It remained a Milanese speciality until the 20th century when pastry chef Angelo Motta helped raise panettone's profile beyond Italy's northern city. In 1919, Motta opened a bakery in Via della Chiusa in Milan and soon realised how to streamline the making of panettone. Soon enough, the flavour of panettone could be mass-produced. It travelled far and wide across the country and is now consumed worldwide.

"I like the traditional panettone with the fruit as everyone likes to eat it."

While panettone is eaten over Christmas, the Milanese savour the panettone until 3 February, the Festa di San Biagio meaning the Feast of Saint Blaise. Many people eat a slice of saved panettone from Christmas time in honour of Saint Blaise, the patron saint of throat illnesses. 

Panettone styles

Centuries on, variations of panettone – including those which utilise leftover panettone – continue to flourish.

There are plenty of modern flavour fusions that add pizazz to the classic Christmas bread, such as charred nectarine and panettone with crème fraiche or the gluttonous panettone bread and butter pudding of Adam Liaw, the host of the eponymous The Cook Up With Adam Liaw

Panettone bread and butter pudding

Panettone, with its fruit and rich dough, is simply asking to be made into a pudding. It soaks up the rum, marsala, cream and cinnamon for a really indulgent dessert.

However, some things never change.

When I asked my own grandmother, Giuseppina Mercadante, an Italian migrant from the southern city of Grassano, how she likes her panettone, she told me: "I like the traditional panettone with the fruit as everyone likes to eat it.

"When my friend invites me over for Christmas lunch, what do I have to bring? I bring a panettone."

Panettone really is the Christmas cake that keeps on giving (and re-gifting). 


Love this story? You can follow the author Instagram @theroamingflamingo

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