In Italy, the holidays aren’t complete without panettone, the light, aromatic cake studded with dried fruits and scented with warm, toasty vanilla. It’s one of our favorite foods we bring in this time of year, perfect for gift-giving or for big breakfast buffets when friends and family are in town. Our version with golden raisins and glazed chestnuts is made by Pasticceria Scarpato, a company that’s been baking panettone since 1888. Here, we share their inside story — keep reading to find out what makes this holiday tradition so special.
As the legend goes, panettone was invented by a poor baker named Tonio. When an Italian nobleman proposed to Tonio’s daughter, she couldn’t marry him because the family didn’t have a dowry to offer. Tonio created a special cake to sell to his customers over the holidays, and soon, word got out; everyone raved over the exceptional cake — pan de Tonio — and people came from far and wide to buy it. The baker made a fortune, and his daughter was married. Today, panettone is the quintessential Italian Christmas cake.
Pasticceria Scarpato, the bakery behind our panettone, have been making the cake since they opened in Verona over a century ago. Their pastries are made according to tradition, always using the best ingredients: specially designed, high-protein wheat flour, ideal for long proofing times; fresh, pasteurized eggs; butter from pure cow’s milk; and Madagascar vanilla. A natural yeast forms the foundation for all of their leavened goods. The yeast has been handed down from the original 1888 recipe, refreshed every day of the year by their chefs to nourish the microorganisms that help the dough rise. The resulting cake is tasty and fragrant, made over the course of three days, with calm, patience and care taken in every step of the process. Here’s how it works:
- Natural yeast production: First, the natural yeast dough is made from flour, water and yeast from the previous day. Once smooth and soft, it is set out to rise for use the next day.
- First mix and rise: The yeast is kneaded in special mixers with flour, water sugar and eggs, then placed in containers to rise for at least 2 hours.
- Second mix and rise: The dough is med again with flour, sugar, water, egg and the yeast mixture, then rises for at least 1 hour.
- Emulsion: Meanwhile, a mixture including butter, sugar, water and milk is kneaded to create an emulsion that will be added to the dough.
- Final mix: The dough is kneaded again with flour, sugar, eggs and the emulsion, along with salt, raisins, candied citrus peel and other flavors.
- Loaf formation and final rise: The dough is broken into loaves and placed in molds, where they rise for at least 7 hours in a controlled environment.
- Baking and cooling: The loaves are scored, then baked in the oven for more than one hour at different temperatures for the best volume. Then, they are cooled at room temperature for at least 10 hours.
- Packaging: Once cool, the loaves are checked for quality and sealed tightly in bags to maintain freshness. Finally, they are placed in festive, reusable tins — ready for gifting and enjoying!
Panettone is a wonderful accompaniment to coffee, tea or sweet dessert wine, such as Vin Santo. Its sweet, buttery flavor and airy texture also make it ideal for French toast or bread pudding — here’s a recipe to get you started.
Panettone French Toast
1/2 purchased panettone, about 1 lb.
1 cup milk
Grated zest of 1 orange
1/2 cup fresh orange juice
1 Tbs. Cointreau or other orange liqueur (optional)
3 Tbs. granulated sugar
1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
Freshly grated nutmeg, to taste
Softened unsalted butter for brushing
Confectioners’ sugar for dusting
Warm maple syrup for serving
Cut the panettone into 5 or 6 vertical slices, each 1 inch thick. Discard the end slices. Cut the remaining slices in half.
In a bowl, whisk the eggs until just blended, then whisk in the milk, orange zest, orange juice, Cointreau, granulated sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg. Pour the egg mixture into a large, shallow bowl (you may need 2 bowls) and add the bread slices. Soak, turning once, about 10 seconds per side.
Heat an electric griddle on medium heat and brush with butter. When the butter foams, add a few of the bread slices (do not overcrowd). Cook, turning once, until lightly browned, 3 to 5 minutes per side. Turn the slices over again and cook for a few minutes more per side until browned to your taste.
Using a slotted metal spatula, transfer the French toast to serving plates, place them in the oven and turn the oven to 200°F. Repeat to cook the remaining bread slices.
Dust the French toast with confectioners’ sugar. Serve immediately with maple syrup. Serves 4 or 5.