A Christmas tradition, in food formPosted on December 11, 2011
Right now, in the middle of my living room, a loaf of Italian dessert bread known as Panettone is dangling upside down between two chairs, supported precariously by a couple of slightly charred wooden kebab skewers stabbed through its bottom. Tradition dictates that the bread is supposed to remain suspended this way for several hours to prevent its domed top from collapsing as it cools, but I doubt that this loaf is going to last anywhere near that long in its inverted state. The skewers are flexing alarmingly under the weight of the Panettone, and I can imagine it crashing to the floor in a shower of crumbs, candied citrus peel, and shattered dreams. Even if by some miracle it doesn’t fall, I’ll probably end up letting the nerves get the best of me (I’ve positioned my chair within arms reach of the bread, and I keep shooting it anxious glances every few seconds). I know I’ll end up whisking it away to the safety of the kitchen counter before it’s properly completed its time in mid-air.
Eating Panettone bread has become something of a Christmas tradition in my family. I’m not sure how this came to be – we don’t have even a shred of Italian heritage, my parents haven’t ever been to Italy, and yet the loaf of dense, fruity bread was a holiday staple in our household. Growing up, the bread always came from the store – sometimes in elaborately illustrated tins, sometimes in glossy boxes, and always wrapped in that trademark brown and gold paper. This year, though, I decided that I’d try something new while keeping the tradition alive: I’d bake my own Panettone.
I’m not normally the type of person who feels attached to holiday traditions. I don’t decorate my apartment. I don’t care for turkey or mashed potatoes or pumpkin pie. And I have absolutely no problem giving up the concept of a winter wonderland in exchange for some time spent lounging under a palm tree in Hawaii at Christmas. But for reasons unknown even to me, I do feel oddly attached to Panettone. And so I headed into the kitchen, armed with the world’s longest recipe and enough candied citrus peel to send me into a permanent sugar overdose.
There are two ways that a person can prepare their own Panettone. The first is the modern, time-saving method, an adaptation of the traditional techniques tailored to suit time-stapped housewives or those of us who just can’t commit to a two-day-long baking endeavour or a recipe that requires us to develop and cultivate our own wild yeast. The second way – the traditional method – requires patience, a lot of time, and a meticulously scheduled series of steps that guarantee a weekend devoid of both late nights out and lazy sleep-ins. It might be better suited to commercial bakeries than apartment kitchens, but I’ve never been one to shy away from complicated recipes, even ones that require driving across the city just to procure a couple of ingredients. Besides, with a wild yeast starter already developed for the normal bread I bake each week, I was already way ahead of the curve. Or so I thought.
Panettone, as it turns out, is a stressful dessert to prepare. The ingredients must be precisely weighed. The dough must be kneaded and kneaded and then kneaded some more, and the temperature during the rise has to be kept just right. Panettone is rather picky. I found myself sitting in front of the oven (warmed only by the oven light during the initial twelve-hour rising period) well past midnight, staring at the bowl of dough while willing it to rise faster, and the next morning I nearly had a nervous breakdown in front of my KitchenAid when the texture of the final dough was decidedly not what the recipe described. I added more flour – when in doubt, always add more flour – and kept mixing, kept feeding the dough ball more little cubes of softened butter until it was fat and glossy, ready to rise some more and then get placed into its traditional brown paper wrapper for baking. An hour later I swooped the finished Panettone out of the oven and immediately suspended it upside-down between the two chairs I had already arranged – so far, so good. As long as the bread didn’t slip out of the paper and plummet to the floor, my Christmas tradition would be a success.
Taste-testing after writing this post gives the homemade Panettone a solid two thumbs up for flavour, although the next iteration will definitely include a custard filling for additional
Since the recipe is so long, I’m not going to post it here. If you’re interested in making your own Panettone, you can find it here.