Panettone purists say chocolate and cherries are fine – but don’t call it a panettone
It’s 4:30 a.m. in the brightly lit basement kitchen of Pasticceria Walter Musco pastry shop in southern Rome, and the arms of a large mixer are spinning at full speed – beating, twisting and stretching a huge ball of brown dough.
Young chefs rush in, poking their noses into the machine to check the dough and measure out the ingredients that will soon be added.
This is the final phase of the two- to three-day process involved in making panettone, the domed Italian sweet bread that has found a perennial place on Christmas tables around the world.
Producing panettoni (plural ends with an “i”; singular with an “e”) is an elaborate affair. It begins with the rising and cooling of the sourdough at its base, kneading and temperature controls that can last more than a day. Then add sugar, butter, eggs and, according to the traditional recipe, candied lemon, orange peel and raisins.
But this morning, award-winning pastry chef Musco oversees a chocolate version, pirlando, or round, the shiny drops of a kilogram of chocolate paste, before depositing them in circular paper holders, ready for the oven.
« The main difference with the chocolate product is that the sprinkles do not contain water, so its shelf life is shorter than those with raisins and fruit peels, » he explained.
However, when talking about edible chocolate, Musco is careful not to use the word panettone, which reflects an Italian qualm about culinary traditions.
« The specification for panettone is extremely strict, » he said.
« The rules govern not only how the dough is made, but also what is ‘suspended’ inside. If you add anything other than raisins and candied citrus fruits – even chocolate – you can no longer call this a panettone, but rather a ‘pastry’ produced with yeast.' »
That’s the party line, anyway.
Musco’s sour cherry and poppy seed Christmas candy made the panettoni front page of national newspaper La Repubblica in Rome this week. However, there was no fine print disclaimer to say that his and the others on the list, pictured brimming with everything from raspberry sorbet and eggnog to Madagascar bourbon, weren’t than simple « baked goods with yeast ».
Don’t get creative with the classics
Yet, the importance of culinary nomenclature for Italians should never be underestimated.
Italy lobbied for Denominazione di Origine Protetta (Protected designation of origin), or DOP, certification for produce grown locally using traditional methods, for everything from unique parmesan to prosciutto to balsamic vinegar.
And woe to non-Italians who think it might be fun to get creative with classic Italian dishes. Just ask the New York Times recipe writer who last year dared to suggest adding cherry tomatoes « to give a lively flavor » to carbonara.
« Icy shores and plentiful sea ice aren’t traditional on a tropical beach, but they give a brilliant thrill to this Caribbean getaway, » was one of the less withered Italian responses in a torrent of outrage on the social networks.
And the pineapple on the pizza? In Italy, not even.
LISTEN | Megan Williams explores the pasty world of panettone with The Current:
The flow23:40Why purists say a chocolate panettone just isn’t a panettone
Silvia Famà, editor-in-chief of Cucina d’Italia, an Italian food magazine that promotes made-in-Italy products, is trying to launch a DOP classification bid for Italian panettone but complains that producers aren’t cooperative enough to join it.
She says panettone makers in Italy fell asleep in the kitchen, as their South American cousins moved in and dominated the global market with low-cost products.
« The biggest producer of ‘panettone’ in the world is not even Italian, but Brazilian. Bauducco, with 180,000 outlets worldwide, » she said. « The second largest producer in the world? D’Onofrio. Peruvian! We Italians need to wake up and start communicating about the quality of what we have to offer. »
‘No icing, no sugar drops, no almonds’
So what Is constitute a quality panettone?
“A good panettone should not be too dry, should be well puffed, not too heavy in the hands, pleasant when eaten,” said Marion Lichtle, award-winning French pastry chef at Il Pagliaccio., a Michelin-starred restaurant in Rome. « You should smell the butter, but it shouldn’t melt. Not sticky, but still a little moist inside the dough. Moist. »
So dry is bad, as evidenced by anyone who munch on a slice of panettone bought on sale just before its deadline and brought to the office party.
But other than dry, what makes it a bad one?
“Sometimes the mistake is that pastry chefs use too many aromas or flavors, instead of sticking to natural ingredients, or just adding vanilla, or making the candied fruits themselves,” said she declared. « It’s sad. »
Pastry chef Gianluca Fusto is more adamant than discouraged in his assessment of fake flavors. His judgment would effectively disqualify almost any panettone sold under $50.
“When you add artificial flavors like almond or orange first, it’s not a real panettone anymore,” Fusto said. « Second, it becomes an irritant in the mouth. You can smell it on your palette, some bitterness that you want to wash away with water. Chemical notes. »
As a judge at the recent Panettone Maximo competition held in Rome, Fusto was completely unimpressed by most of the 24 artisanal competitors, dismissing some after a concentrated sniffle.
Giuseppe Gattullo, the third-generation owner of Pasticceria Gattullo in Milan, goes one step further, saying the only true panettone is the Milanese version, the traditional recipe of candied citrus fruits and raisins — and nothing on top except the knife marks in the shape of a cross. No frosting, no sugar pastilles, no almonds – the crowning glory of Turin, northern Italy. (This city’s classic version is slightly inferior and preferred to Milan’s by most pastry chefs in central and southern Italy, who don’t hold back on sugar.)
Gattullo emerges from the kitchen of his hectic pasticceria holding a bundle of white canvas tied with hospital green cord. He’s as heavy as a sandbag and looks like a miniature mummy.
« It’s the heart of our panettone, the mother yeast, created by my no nomy grandfather, in 1961,” he says, cradling the bundle of fabric as one would with a newborn baby. no no was still alive, the refrigerator broke and the yeast almost died. It took a month of care to revive him. For us, it’s like a living soul. »
Legend of « Toni’s Bread »
Annalisa Cavalieri, a food anthropologist at IULM University in Milan, says the concept of yeast as a spirit or soul is deeply connected to Christmas.
« In the Christian religion, living yeast takes on spiritual importance at Christmas time, » Cavalieri said. « Keeping yeast alive was linked to an ancient ritual of holding out hope for new life during the darkest part of the year. So eating something fermented or leavened is a way to keep the yeast alive. ‘hope for spring and the return of light.’
Historians say the first panettoni were made in Milan during the Middle Ages, a sweet bread eaten at Christmas by the wealthy few. The first written documents – the ingredients of the recipe and an entry in a Milanese-Italian dictionary, « panaton » – date from around the year 1600.
Like many traditional dishes, folklore and legends have emerged around it. The dominant story of the genesis of panettone places its birth inside the stronghold of the powerful Sforza family that ruled Milan in the 1400s.
A pastry chef named Toni burned a dessert for a Christmas banquet, the story goes. In a scramble to make a replacement, he gathered what he had on hand: butter, sugar, eggs, candied fruit and raisins, and his special sourdough. The result pleased the Sforza family so much that they named the sweet bread « Pane di Toni » – Bread of Toni. Pane-toni.
« It’s just a legend, » Gattullo said with a laugh. « But what is irrefutable is that panettone was born here in Milan. »
For centuries it was a low rise bread. Then, in the 1930s, it reached new commercial and literal heights, when the company of Milanese pastry chef Angelo Motta took its production from artisanal to industrial.
« The panettone we all know today was invented by Mr. Motta, of the now famous mass-produced brand, » Cavalieri said. “They realized they could save a lot of space in the factory ovens by making them taller and thinner, and they would stack more efficiently.”
Post-World War II migration to Italy brought workers from the south to bakeries and factories in the north, where they learned the complicated process of making sweet bread, experts say.
Decades later, they’ve brought that expertise back to the south, injecting local rococo foofaraw and a glorious array of ingredients and flavors into the panettone, which have proven popular everywhere from Rome to Regina.
Milan, with its raisins and chunks of citrus, may still be the king of classic panettone. But the genie is ready to go, decked out in chocolate and cherries, dripping with pistachio glaze.