Panettone is one of the most traditional holiday desserts. Original to Italy, it has crossed borders to become part of the traditional holiday celebrations in many other countries.
Panettone is a cylindrical sponge cake with a dome-shaped crown. It has a rather unusual history. Apparently, it was created quite by accident at the Milan court in the 15th century—a time of maximum splendor and the Renaissance— when it was governed by the Duke Ludovico Sforza, known as El Moro (The Moor) because of his curly black hair and dark complexion.
The Sforzas were one of the most prestigious noble families of the time, and Ludovico was a patron of great artists such as Leonardo Da Vinci. It is said that Ludovico—apart from being great warrior— was an epicure with a particular fondness for sweets.
During one Christmas Eve, the chef of the Sforza Castle accidentally burned the cake he was baking for the ducal banquet.
Seeing how desperate he was, one of his aides, a young man named Toni, volunteered the bread dough he had been saving to celebrate Christmas with his family. He had kneaded the dough for a long time adding flour, yeast, butter, eggs, sugar, raisins and candied fruit until it looked smooth, light and fluffy.
The result was such a resounding success that Ludovico summoned the young assistant to congratulate him, and told him that–in the future–the cake would be named in his honor “Toni’s bread,” which translated into Italian is panettone.
In many places outside Italy, there are great bakers who produce great panettone—just as good as those produced in the Transalpine country.
In Spain, the great pastry chef Paco Torreblanca from Alicante—awarded Best Pastry Chef in Europe in 1990 and credited with making the wedding cake of the current kings of Spain—prepares delicious and lovely panettone, among which his chocolate version with spices stands out for its finesse, taste, and fluffiness.
In New YorkCity’s Grandaisy Bakery (250 West Broadway) the panettone is made right in the bakery, and during the holiday season, they are baked daily, allowing them to stand for more than five hours to cool down before selling.
If you ask me, I’d recommend that you travel to Italy because that is where you will find the perfect panettone. For example, in the Pasticceria Comi, located in Missaglia, Lombardy, the Pastry Chef Emanuele Comi knows how to delight his customers by preparing his exquisite panettone year round. His secret? He uses butter from Emilia-Romagna, lemons from the Amalfi Coast, Piedmont candied fruits, raisins from Sicily and acacia honey from Tuscany. With those special ingredients, he is sure to produce an impossible to forget delicacy.
Toni, the young apprentice baker from the 15th century, never imagined that his original cake was to bring such global renown to the world of Italian pastries. ■