Toni’s Bread, a Milanese LegendIn Milano, the coming of Christmas means the arrival of the city’s famed Christmas sweet, the world famous panettone. To render the idea of the popularity of this Milanese specialty, 84 per cent of Milan’s families will present a panettone at their Christmas table for a total spend of €20 million. The popularity of this apparently sober cake, or bread, as you prefer, is demonstrated by its ever-growing appeal far beyond the borders of its Milanese homeland. Although fewer Roman families consume panettone over Christmas, the turnover in Italy’s capital is even higher, an impressive €30 million. If we consider the rest of Italy, and indeed the world, the sales figures are a staggering €500 million – all this for a simple cake. Panettone is the most clicked Christmas cake on the web, surpassing the English Christmas pudding and the German stollen. Not bad for a cake that was born accidentally.
There are two main legends attributed to the origin of panettone. Clearly, the creator was a certain Toni. One version states that during a lavish Christmas Eve dinner hosted by the Duke of Milan Ludovico il Moro, the house chef burnt the dessert. Toni, the dishwasher, sympathetic to the plight of the distraught chef, offered to sacrifice the naturally leavened bread dough he had stashed away for himself. This starter dough was promptly enriched with sultanas, candied citrus peel, butter, sugar and eggs. The result was a resounding success among the guests, and Ludovico il Moro proudly proclaimed the sweet as ‘pan del Toni’, ‘Toni’s bread’.
Another version relates to the young falcon trainer Ughetto degli Atellani, who was madly in love with the daughter of a baker named Toni. It was Christmas and the bakery of his loved one was in deep crisis due to the strong competition of another bakery nearby. Determined to help the family of his loved one, the falcon trainer invested his last pennies in sultanas, eggs, butter and sugar, creating a cake that was to become today’s panettone. Clearly the cake was a hit; the bakery flourished and the young couple lived happily ever after. Coincidentally, in Milanese dialect ughett is the word for sultana, a principal ingredient in today’s panettone.
Historians, whose readings are more mundane than the colourful fantasy of legend, attribute the evolution of the panettone to the medieval tradition, not just in Italy but throughout Europe, of offering three breads made of good quality flour, a rarity in those times, on Christmas Eve. The three breads had a religious significance, representing the Christian Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The arrival of panettone on the shelves of supermarkets, boutique food shops (gastronomie), bakeries, pastry shops, market places and even bookshops – a recent phenomena heralding the age of the hybrid shopping place – brings with it the inevitable and often heated debate of which is best: industrial or artisanal, more or less candied citrus peel, traditional or innovative with the addition of chocolate chips or sweet creams. Italians love debate, or argument, especially over food. Whatever the preference, panettone is a commercial and symbolic hit with few rivals. The success of this fanciless cake or bread is in part due to its moreish quality, its symbolic relationship to Christmas and its pompous packaging in a large box. Panettone is infinitely edible, not too sweet and never heavy, good for breakfast, or with coffee or tea at any time of day. It is a gentle end to a meal, a sweet but delicate palate cleanser. Its only problem is that once you start, it’s hard to stop eating.
A measure of the cultural importance of panettone was the passing of a ministerial decree in 2005 that clearly defines the criteria for this cake to have the right to be labelled as panettone, a safeguard against fraudulent and inferior imitations that would damage the cake’s reputation and image. Whether industrial or artisanal, to earn the right to be labelled panettone, the cake must be made according to the following method.
The fundamental first step is to begin with a starter dough; doughs started with only added yeasts are not permitted. Some artisan producers have a yeast starter, ‘pasta madre’ or mother dough, that has been kept alive for decades – when not in use, the starter can be frozen for long periods without comprising the vigour and flavouring properties of its wild yeast content. The aptly named ‘Pasta Madre’ restaurant in Milan is in possession of a starter dough that was created 85 years ago, a sign of how strongly proponents of this natural raising agent are attached to their own precious yeast starter. The dough needs to prove for a minimum period of 30 hours, during this time it is worked three times. The final dough needs to contain a minimum 20 per cent of dried sultanas and candied citrus peel, at least 4 per cent egg yolk and 16 per cent butter.
The difference between an industrial and artisanal panettone lies mainly in the quality of the ingredients that go into it. Artisanal versions will contain better quality dried fruits, which give the cake a fragrance and taste that industrial versions just don’t have – low quality fruits are dry and tasteless. The fruits will also be evenly dispersed throughout the dough. The eggs and the butter will also be of higher quality, giving added fragrance and taste. Another measure of quality is the cake’s texture: it should be light and airy, not dry, and not gummy. The working of the dough and its correct proving is vital to this, and if done correctly, will create the little air bubbles throughout the cake dough that are so important to the cake’s proper texture. As long as these conditions are all met, a panettone can be embellished according to the fantasy of its creator – the addition of chocolate chips is a popular contemporary evolution of the traditional version.
The other main differences between an industrial panettone and an artisanal panettone are the cost and the shelf life. Industrial panettone can cost as little as €2/kg and generally do not go beyond €10/kg, and their shelf life is about 7 months. Economies of scale and inferior ingredients explain the low price, while the addition of mono- and diglycerides – animal-derived or synthetic fats – act as emulsifiers and antioxidants prolonging shelf life. Artisanal panettone can cost as much as €40/kg, and have a maximum shelf life of 30 days. The reason for this, apart from the fame of the maker, is the higher cost of superior ingredients and the manual working of the product in all of its phases, no preservatives or mono- and diglycerides are added, resulting in a much shorter shelf life.
A final characteristic of the panettone is its ‘Champagne cork’ form. This is obtained by allowing the panettone to rise in the waxed mould in which it will first be baked and then sold.
Panettone, as we have said, can be enjoyed at any time of day. It needs no adornment and is at its best the way it is. In Italy, it is sometimes lightly toasted and served with a ‘crema’, a simple custard, just to make it more fancy. Italians love to end a festive meal with a glass of bubbles, a meal ending ‘brindisi’, or cheers, a joyous celebration of the company at table. A national love for Champagne, more for its festive symbolism than for its taste, makes this the bubble of choice. Inevitably, the end of meal brindisi coincides with the serving of dessert, always and only panettone during the festive season. Panettone and Champagne is what you get – a festive extravagance but not a perfect wine and food match. To stay festive, and keep the bubbles alive, a much better alternative to Champagne is Moscato d’Asti, with its fragrant fruit notes, low alcohol and refreshing acidity.