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We’re going to Italy! Via our kitchens, that is. This is a fancy bread I only make this time of year. Panettone is the quintessential bread made by Italians at Christmas. Legend has it that it started in Milan, but some dispute that. What it is, is a rich sweet bread with fruits and peels, usually flavoured with citrus and vanilla. It is dome shaped on top, and some say this represents Il Duomo, or the cathedral in Florence. There are two Duomos, one in each city, but the domed bread much more resembles the one in Florence. Go figure, as these two cities weren’t always the best of friends. At any rate, politics and architecture aside, panettone has spread beyond the borders of Italy as a popular Christmas bread.
The Italians start with a yeast concoction they call biga
1 cup raisins, any kind, a mixture is nice1/2 cup chopped mixed fruits and peels
1/3 cup Marsala or brandy
1/2 cup milk, approximately1 tbsp granulated sugar
2½ tbsp active dry yeast
5 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp salt
3/4 cup milk
1/2 cup butter (no substitute)3 large eggs, beaten
2 egg yolks, beaten
1 tsp finely grated orange or lemon zest*
1 tsp. Vanilla extract
Mix the fruit and raisins in a small bowl with the liquor and let sit for at least half an hour. Heat milk and first amount of sugar in a pan or microwave until milk is warm and sugar dissolved. If it is warmer than about 120 degrees Fahrenheit, let stand for a few minutes to cool, then sprinkle the yeast over the top and stir until dissolved. Let sit for about 10 minutes, but keep an eye on it, as it will really begin to grow. Combine your flour, sugar and salt in a large bowl. Make a well in the middle and then add your fruit mixture. Stir. Then stir in the yeast mixture, stirring well.
Mix together the second amount of milk and butter, again heating it until the butter is almost melted, and if it is above 120 degrees, let it sit for 5 minutes or so to cool. Add this mixture and the eggs, yolks, zest, Fiori di Sicilia and vanilla. Mix until you have a soft dough. You can use a mixer or dough whisk for this. Turn into another large greased bowl, (or wash the one you are using), cover with wax paper and a tea towel. Put in a warm place for 30 minutes until doubled. Punch down. Knead briefly, then divide into two portions. You can use an 8-inch cake or springform pan, but I used actual panettone paper “pans” to hold the dough.** If you are using the paper pans, make sure you put them together on a cookie sheet, as they can be wobbly and cause the dough to deflate. (If that happens for whatever reason, just stick them back where it’s warm, and wait about 10 minutes, they should pop up again.) Cover with the tea towel again, and let rise until nicely domed. You can brush with some beaten egg white and water if you like, or just pop them in the oven for about 35 to 45 minutes until nicely browned, like I did. They should sound hollow when tapped, this indicates they are done. Let cool in the paper pans; if using conventional pans, let cool for 10 minutes before turning out.
*Do use real fresh, not dehydrated, zest here, it makes a big difference.
**Paper pans can be found now in some bakeware specialty stores, but can be difficult to find. I got mine from King Arthur Flour, where they sell them in all shapes and sizes.
Editor's note: Classic panettone is baked at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 25 to 40 minutes, tenting with foil for the last 15 if it’s browning too fast. Internal temperature should read 190 to 205 degrees when checked with an instant-read thermometer.