Supposedly, it was originally called pan de tonio, or Tony's bread, after a 15th-century Milanese baker whose business was not doing well. This was much to his beautiful daughter's dismay, for she had a rich young suitor whose parents would not let him marry a poor man's daughter. The suitor was ingenious, however, and gave Tony an important gift -- the finest flour, butter, and eggs that money could buy to make the most wonderful cake that Tony could concoct. The young suitor also procured sultana raisins and lemons for the baker's project.
The result? A cake that eventually made Tony's business boom: Tony got rich, so did his daughter, and the suitor got his girl, whose in-laws now welcomed her with greedy open arms. The rest of the world got a first-rate coffeecake.
Traditionally, panettone is eaten at Christmas time, but it is enjoyed throughout the year as well, especially for breakfast. A bun called a colomba, made of the same dough, is eaten at Easter time.
There are probably as many different recipes for panettone as there are for its French cousin, brioche. The required ingredients for a good panettone seem to be: plenty of fresh egg yolks, to make the rich yellow color of the cake; lots of fresh butter, for the crumbly texture; freshly grated lemon peel, to cut the richness and for a wake-up taste in the morning; and raisins, for an extra sweetness.
A cross is cut into the top of the dough after the last rising and just before the panettone is baked. This produces a high, brown, crusty, four-sectioned top, like a monsignor's hat. Others have noted that this puffy dome resembles the cupolas of Lombardy churches. PANETTONE (Makes a 9-inch round cake) 2 packages active dry yeast 1 cup lukewarm water 2 whole eggs 3 egg yolks 10 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled 1/2 cup sugar 1 teaspoon salt Freshly grated rind of 1 lemon 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 6 cups all-purpose flour, approximately 2/3 cup dark raisins Optional additions: 1/4 cup candied lemon peel, chopped; 1/3 cup citron, chopped
Put the yeast and lukewarm water into a small bowl, and stir to dissolve. Let stand in a warm place until foamy -- about 5 minutes.
With an electric mixer, beat the eggs and egg yolks in a large bowl. (You may also use a large-capacity food processor fitted with the steel blade.) Add to the bowl all but 2 tablespoons of the butter, sugar, salt, lemon rind and vanilla, and thoroughly mix.
Sift the flour onto a bread board, and add it to the above mixture, cup by cupful, mixing well after each addition, until the dough forms elastic bands, and the mixer or food processor is no longer efficient. (The mixer should be able to handle up to 4 cups of flour; the food processor should take 5.)
Remove this very sticky dough from the bowl with a rubber spatula, and place in the middle of the remaining flour on the bread board. Work in the remaining flour, little by little, along with the raisins and optional additions, until the dough is no longer sticky and you can form it into a neat, smooth and rubbery round ball.
Butter a large bowl and place the dough in it. Butter the top of the dough, too, and cover with a dish towel. Set in a warm place to rise until doubled in bulk -- approximately 1 1/2 hours.
Punch down the dough with a firm fist into the middle of it, remove the dough from the bowl to the board, and knead once again briefly, adding a pinch more flour if it gets sticky.
Let the dough rest while you butter a round pan. A 9-inch spring-form cake pan is ideal. You may also use a large double boiler top, or just butter a cookie sheet and bake the cake without a pan. Whatever you use, be sure the capacity is more than double the bulk of the dough.
Place the dough in the pan, pot or in the middle of the cookie sheet. Brush the top with the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter, and let rise once again in a warm place -- approximately 1 hour.
With a sharp knife, cut a deep cross into the top of the dough, and place in a 425-degree oven. Bake 5-to-8 minutes. The top will start to brown, and the dough should continue to rise further. Lower the heat to 350 degrees and bake 50 minutes longer. Cool on a rack.
Panettone is traditionally served cut in large wedges.