A Harte Appetite: The legendary bread of Italy

Wednesday, December 24, 2008
ELIZABETH DODD ~ edodd@semissourian.com
Panettone is an Italian Christmas bread that is often served topped with cream cheese or mascarpone cheese.

Back in the 15th century in Milan, Italy, there lived a young nobleman who wished to marry the girl in the bakery next door run by her father, Tonio. He would secretly visit his sweetheart at the bakery at night while she prepared bread for the next day, and before long he began helping out. As an experiment, he created a rich bread laced with candied fruit that became so popular that Tonio became a wealthy man who in gratitude allowed the wedding to take place. Among the guests at the ceremony was Leonardo da Vinci, who at the time was painting "The Last Supper" in the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie across the street from the bakery. And the concoction that made all of this possible was christened by the appreciative groom as pan de tonio (Tony's bread), known today as panettone.

Not everyone subscribes to this legend about the invention of panettone, the Christmas bread that is as important to Italians as plum pudding to the English and Buche de Noel to the French -- so important that the Italian government has taken steps to safeguard it from impostors just as it has done for Parmesan cheese and Neapolitan pizza.

Some maintain that Tonio was not a shop owner, but a mere servant who worked around the same time in the kitchen of the local castle of Duke Ludovico and that one Christmas Eve the dessert was burned while being prepared for the holiday banquet. The servant Tonio offered as a substitute a fruit-filled bread he had created, which turned out to delight the duke and his guests and which they, likewise, named in his honor. Still another story, involving no one named Tony, argues the festive bread was actually invented by a nun in a nearby convent.

The truth is, all of these legends, while charming, are fanciful -- just as fanciful as the claim that the bread's distinctive dome shape is modeled after St. Peter's in Rome. (It's merely the inevitable result of a cylindrical cake mold.)

While the ancestors of panettone can be traced back to the days of the Roman Empire, and there are references to something called pan del ton (meaning luxury bread) as early as the 1300s, the version of panettone popular today is a relative newcomer, going back only to the 1920s and a Milanese baker named Angelo Motta. Nonetheless, one bite makes it easy to see why his creation is the stuff of which legends are born.

ELIZABETH DODD ~ edodd@semissourian.com
Panettone is an Italian Christmas bread laced with dried fruit.


Classic panettone can take two days to prepare, but this recipe, adapted from Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois' revolutionary book, "Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day," is quick, easy and just as good. If you can't find fiori di Sicilia (flowers of Sicily), you can substitute 1/2 teaspoon vanilla and 1/4 teaspoon each lemon and orange extract.

3/4 cup lukewarm water

2 1/4 teaspoons granulated yeast

1/2 tablespoon salt

1/4 cup honey

4 eggs

1 stick melted butter

1 teaspoon fiori di Sicilia

1 teaspoon lemon zest

3 3/4 cups flour

1 cup mixed dried fruit

Mix water, yeast, salt, honey, eggs, butter, fiori di Sicilia and zest in a 3-quart container. Mix in flour and dried fruit. Cover loosely and let rest at room temperature for about two hours or until dough rises and collapses or flattens on top. Refrigerate overnight. Dust surface of dough with flour and divide into two equal pieces. Dust each piece with more flour and quickly shape each into a ball by stretching the surface of the dough around to the bottom on all four sides. Place each ball in a greased 5-inch panettone mold or parchment-lined 1-pound coffee can, cover loosely with oiled plastic wrap, and let rest for 1 hour and 40 minutes. Brush panettone with egg wash (1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon water) and bake at 375 degrees until golden brown and hollow sounding when tapped, about 35 minutes. Cool before slicing.

Tom Harte's book, "Stirring Words," is available at local bookstores. A Harte Appetite airs Fridays 8:49 a.m. on KRCU, 90.9 FM. Contact Tom at semissourian.com or at the Southeast Missourian, P.O. Box 699, Cape Girardeau, Mo., 63702-0699.

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