It’s Christmas cake – Italian style. Panettone, a sweet Milanese dome-shaped cake made with butter, eggs, sugar, candied fruits and raisins, dates back to the fifteenth century.
Panettone is completely different to the traditional fare we all enjoy during the Christmas season in other parts of the world. In the US, it’s pumpkin pie that’s on the menu, whereas in Ireland – where I lived for most of my life before moving to Italy – and the UK, it’s feel-good, fruit-filled cakes and puddings, liberally soaked in whiskey or brandy. These heavy puddings are strictly a seasonal treat enjoyed by all and usually a prelude to an evening with the family, either in front of the television watching Christmas movies, or playing a competitive game of Monopoly.
There are many stories told about the origin of Panettone, this light delicious cake, but it is mainly accepted that the word ‘panettone’ is a combination of two words, ‘panetto’ and ‘one’ which means a large bread.
There are numerous legends surrounding the origins of this fragrant cake. One is that it was invented by a chef by the name of Toni, in other words ‘pan del Toni’, which was given by many Italian nobles to their love-interests. Another is that the ‘pan del Toni’ was attributed to Toni, a hapless cook at the court of Duke Ludovico Sforza. Toni managed to overcook the panettone, whereby a crust was formed, which proved to be a popular mistake.
Today’s panettone dates back to the nineteenth century when a chef by the name of Paolo Biffi made a giant panettone for Pope Pius IX and sent it to Rome in a specially constructed carriage.
Panettone is baked in a ‘cupola’ shape, narrower at the top than at the bottom. It is usually baked with raisins and candied fruit, but is also available with chocolate chips instead of fruit and can be smothered in chocolate or orange icing or with mandorlato (nougat) made from sugar and almonds.
Eat it with your morning cappuccino or for your after-dinner dessert with a sweet wine, or bring one as a gift when visiting friends and relatives over the Christmas season. They are always beautifully packaged and look wonderfully festive.
All over Italy, bakeries produce millions of panettone cakes every Christmas.
This year I was lucky enough to be able to gain access to the kitchens of famous Pasticceria Da Ciccio in Ostuni.
It’s a family affair. Ciccio and his wife Angela, daughters Mina and Isabella are all involved.
Ciccio Capriglia himself welcomed me in his usually friendly fashion and introduced me to the art of making panettone, which he has been doing for more than forty years.
A large machine, its drum filled with a bright yellow combination of flour, butter, eggs and sugar was busily beating the mixture. The air was fragrant with the smells of baking and the many staff bustled around with high metal trolleys groaning with both hot and pre-cooked pastries. I tried to keep out of everyone’s way as I focused my camera lens on the action.
Adding butter, sugar and dark orange-coloured eggs from a carton, the mixture rotated and grew.
Ciccio then emptied a vast tray of plump rum-soaked raisins into the mix.
More rotating and beating. Then Ciccio began to lift the mixture into two large plastic drums. These drums were then put in a warming oven to allow the mixture to rise.
Later on, this mixture was spread on a worktop, cut up, weighed, rolled into balls and placed in large paper cups.
Into the oven and ready to cook.
Returning later in the afternoon, the oven door was opened and the freshly baked panettone was brought out, spread on a long table and hung upside down, all at high speed as, if it is not turned upside down and left for more than a few minutes in its cup, it can become soggy and no panettone from Ciccio’s can ever possibly be soggy!
I can personally vouch for the deliciousness of the panettone from Pasticceria Da Ciccio in Ostuni, as can my friend Anna, yet another of Ciccio’s daughters, who just can’t resist it!