There is nothing more natale (Italian for Christmas) than panettone, a holiday pastry that some (mistakenly) consider the Italian cousin of the fruitcake. But it isn’t that at all. In Italy, the panettone is tradition, identity and a delicacy. Beautifully packaged and given as gifts, the panettone is eagerly awaited by everyone.

The lovely baked dome of sweet, soft and aromatized bread, originally from Milan, makes its way out of the ovens by November. A truly great, artisanal panettone gives you bragging rights all through the festivities. If you’re turning your nose up because you think it’s just a dry, boxed cake, you have never had a proper panettone.

The legend of the cake

The story of panettone is a mix of legends and fact. Ancient Romans feasted on panem triticum, a loaf of bread sweetened with egg and raisins. In the Middle Ages, the Milanese celebrated Christmas with three large loaves of wheat bread, which became official in a 1395 decree stating that all bakeries make pan de’ sciori or pan del ton, a sweetened white wheat loaf, available to all on Christmas.

But sweeter is the legend of Toni, a kitchen boy in the court of Ludovico il Moro, Duke of Milan. Toni accidentally burnt the duke’s Christmas Eve desserts, and to make up for it, he mixes leftover dough with sugar, egg, candied fruits and raisins and bakes a voluminous loaf. Ludovico loves it, and el pan de Toni becomes a court favorite and the official Christmas dessert.

The baking process

All over Milan and across Italy, bakers spend years perfecting their recipe. During the “season”, around the end of September to Christmas Eve, shops churn out thousands. Stacks of cheerfully packaged panettone are everywhere, from bakeries to delis to supermarkets. What separates the good from the processed, and the great from the good, is the quality of ingredients, the traditions and the creativity.

Panettone begins with the lievito madre (starter culture), mixed with egg, flour and butter to create a dough that is then nourished and worked on for at least three days. What happens next depends on where you’re from. The classic Milanese panettone mixes in candied fruits and raisins, then has a cross cut into its top before it is baked. After it emerges from the oven, it is hung upside down for five to 10 hours to maintain the dome.

Head south, the process is the same, except the panettone is glazed with sugar or anything else sweet. Over the years, bakers have gone out of the box with a lineup of creative versions like pear and chocolate, gianduja (a sweet chocolate spread), and peach and amaretto.

The styles

The Milanesi

Milan is the motherland of panettone. Here is where it was invented and its shape was popularized. It is also officially enjoyed for a season longer than the traditional Christmas period; a slice is always saved for Feb. 3, Festa di San Biagio, the Feast of Saint Blaise, who protects from ailments of the throat.

“For a city that has no dolci (pastries), this is our identity,” says Luca Scanni, co-owner of Pavè Milano bakery, who advocates enjoying panettone at any time of the year.

Since 2012, Pavè has been baking artisanal panettone, from the classic to dark chocolate and lemon. For Scanni, and partners Giovanni Giberti and Diego Bamberghi, their ovens are making panettone every day to make sure the Milanese dolce is always present.

Milan’s grand dame Pasticceria Martesana has been delighting its loyal clientele for 50 years, thanks to the loving hands of baker and founder Enzo Santoro.

“Panettone for us is like a son, it is the result of the combination of love and passion with the best mother there is: lievito madre (yeast starter), which we take care of every day and we’ve keep it alive for over half a century, making it one of the most historic in Milan,” Santoro said.

The Romans

Giorgia Proia, co-owner and head baker of pastry and coffee shop Casa Manfredi, has been experimenting with panettone.

“For us in Rome, it means Christmas, happiness and festivities, but we’ve started serving panettone in June to see what would happen,” she says. The result? People love panettone any time of the year. Proia makes a classic panettone, decorated with sugar sprinkles and toasted almonds, and a “chocolate cubed” panettone, which is a triple threat with milk chocolate, dark chocolate and cacao.

Pasticceria Bompiani is Rome’s art house pastry shop. Owner and pastry chef Walter Musco has been wowing the Eternal City for nearly a decade with his edible contemporary art confections like his Easter egg series inspired by artists such as Cy Twombly, Arne Jacobsen and Hans Hartung and cakes inspired by the Bauhaus and artists Jackson Pollock and Alberto Burri.

Musco mixes up art with top-quality ingredients, and he is always up for a good tradition. For the Christmas season, Bompiani has a classic panettone, and he then adds a little flair with an unexpected version. In 2020, it’s a white chocolate and caviar panettone — and it’s already sold out.

The centurion

Nicola Olivieri was born to make panettone. The sixth-generation baker has been perfecting his great-grandfather’s 130-year-old panettone recipe for the past few decades and adding his own twist to a lineup that includes apricot and salted caramel as well as coffee and chocolate.

Olivieri’s Veneto bakery, Olivieri 1882, is considered one of the top panettone makers in Italy, a title not to be taken lightly. Nicola’s emphasis on ingredients and a four-day process of making the panettone. This year, you can enjoy a fresh Olivieri panettone in the United States with two-day shipping from Italy.

The art piece

There is traditional panettone, and then there is designer panettone. Think Armani and Dolce & Gabbana. Leading the pack of the prettiest, artsiest and tastiest is Gucci Osteria, the love-child restaurant of chef Massimo Bottura, who runs a three-Michelin-star restaurant in Modena, and the historic luxury brand from Florence.

In collaboration with specialist baker Posillipo Dolce Officina, Gucci Osteria presents an art-meets-artisanal panettone packaged in a soft flannel pouch and encased in a limited edition Gucci-fied pink tin box. In addition to the traditional classic panettone, Gucci Osteria chef de cuisine Karime Lopez created a chocolate and black cherry version.

The leftovers

But what about all that leftover panettone? In Milan, it’s all about torta meneghina, says Scanni of Pavè. Heat up leftover slices of panettone on the griddle, toast both sides well, and pour some Grand Marnier over it. Or just heat up a slice and coat it with a spalmabile, which is anything spreadable such as mascarpone, Nutella, jam, whatever you like.

Casa Manfredi’s Proia says the best way to eat leftover panettone, if there is any, is to heat a slice and then add a heaping dollop of homemade zabaglione. “Or you can just add gelato alla crema for something lighter.”

Olivieri suggests making French toast. Yep, everyone’s favorite breakfast all’italiano.

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