You know its getting closer to the holidays when certain Christmas traditions start popping up at your local supermarket.
Christmas traditions. I love ’em, but lots of them I didn’t always understand. Take for instance, the Italian panettone. What is it? I used to think it was an Italian football for kids, but then I got my glasses! It’s a bread style cake that looks like a big head that didn’t fit its tin and splooged over the top. But appearance aside…it’s delicious! And no Italian Christmas would be complete without one!
The Panetone is a high round cake made of flour, eggs, sugar, sultanas and sometimes with candied fruit, with an almost bread-like consistency. The boxed variety is widely available in local supermarkets, but the rich and especially delicious panettone you buy freshly baked from the “pasticceria,” or pasty shop. It’s usually eaten on Christmas day, but if you’re like me, I buy three during the season! (and I won’t even begin to count how many out of season) One is to eat right away, and is also fabulous toasted for breakfast (recipe below). The second is for Christmas Day after lunch with coffee, and again later in the evening with a glass of Vin Santo or Prosecco. Finally, the third panettone is often taken as a gift when visiting.
And where did this wonderful addition to the Italian table come from? The origins are somewhat hazy (where’s a quill and inkwell when you need one?), but here are a couple. You choose:
There’s the legend that this sugar’n’spicy little number was created in the kitchens of the famous Milanese Sforza family, notably Francesco Sforza, the Duke of Milan. Apparently the chef’s cake was overcooked in the oven and a quick thinking young kitchenhand saved the day by whipping up this lovely new concoction.
Another, and this is my favourite with shades of Romeo and Juliet, is about a falconer who fell in love with a baker’s daughter. The falconer was in the service of Ludovico il Moro, better known as Ludwig the Moor. Ludwig’s castle was one of the richest of the Italian Renaissance and was the centre of attraction for the best artists of the time, among which were Leonardo and Bramante. Ludwig the More is most famously remembered for the commissioning of the Last Supper by da Vinci!! Anyhow, back to the panettone!! As you’d expect, the kitchen of such a great court was aptly stocked, which allowed the young falconer to create something special – the panettone! This so impressed the baker, he granted permission for the two to be married. This humble cake went on to become a favourite with the locals in Milan and elsewhere throughout Italy. And in case you were wondering, the couple were happily married and produced 12 children – who were all born with big heads!! Hmmm??
Whatever the origins, the panettone is now an essential and delicious part of the Italian Christmas tradition. Perhaps you would like to make it part of yours? Buon Natale!