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All You Need to Know About Panettone – An Italian Holiday Classic

Ila Bonczek
Ila lives in the Garden State with her family and four chickens. She has been growing produce and perennials for 20 years, and recommends gardening for food and fun, but not for fortune.
Published: December 23, 2023
The official holiday dessert in Milan, panettone, is enjoyed in vast quantities throughout the world. (Image: Nicola via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

Neither fruit cake nor sourdough, an authentic panettone falls somewhere in between. A tradition that began as early as the middle ages, this leavened sweetbread was perfected in Milan to become the classic Italian treat for the entire holiday season. 

Simultaneously rich, sweet, fluffy and aromatic, a large, paper-wrapped panettone is not only a must for all Milanese; this holiday custom has spilled over into other cultures and enjoys worldwide popularity. For those unfamiliar with this seasonal delicacy, you’ll soon see what you’re missing. 

The origin of panettone

Even before Christmas was celebrated, ancient Romans enjoyed panem triticum — a sweet, rich bread — at their feasts. The tradition carried over to the middle ages, when it was customary to serve something better than your average bread at Christmas time — if you could afford it. 

Instead of the more common grains like rye and spelt, wheat was favored for its mild flavor and texture, so wealthy families in Milan typically enjoyed three large wheat loaves for the holiday. To make things more equitable, in 1395 the city officials issued a decree ordering all bakeries to have an affordable, sweet, white bread available on Christmas Eve — so that everyone could enjoy this local tradition.  

Colorful legends fill out the finer details of panettone’s origin — including the story of Toni, a young lad entrusted to taking the Christmas pastries out of the oven for Ludovico il Mors, Duke of Milan. 

OOPS. Toni missed the window and the desserts were ruined; but the resourceful boy saved his job by combining some leftover bread dough with eggs, sugar and candied fruit. Baked in a round pan, the loaves rose to the occasion and were a delight to the Duke and the entire court. This is how pan de toni (Toni’s bread) became the official Christmas dessert of Milan. 

An artisanal loaf

(Image: Nicola via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

Although Toni makes it sound easy, panettone is one of the most complicated breads to make. It all begins with lievito madre, a natural sourdough starter that takes 14 days to develop. Italian bakers can keep their lievito madre going for decades, and spend years perfecting their bread recipe.

To meet Italy’s strict requirements for authentic panettone, the recipe must include at least 16 percent butter and 20 percent candied fruit. Eggs are added for moisture and texture; while sugar and unbleached white flour ensure a light, fluffy loaf. 

The dough is worked and nourished for three days or more, as multiple fermentations are required for the low-moisture starter to leaven and develop its distinctive flavor. Then, the panettone is baked in paper forms to achieve its characteristic form. 

If you think that’s it, think again. Left upright, the beautiful breads will cave in on themselves. In order to preserve the perfect dome shape for presentation, the loaves must be hung upside-down to cool for several hours. Finally, the loaves are ready to wrap as edible gifts — of which Italy produces over 7,100 tons each year!

Traditional customs

Panettone is widely enjoyed on Christmas day and beyond. While most of it is eaten warm — served sliced with breakfast, tea, or later with wine, it is a custom in Milan to save a slice for February 3, the Feast of Saint Blaise. 

St. Blaise (San Biagio) was an Armenian Bishop of Sebaste. He was also a doctor with a miraculous power to heal both animals and people, but he suffered martyrdom under Licinius around 316 AD.

Saint Blaise is the patron saint of wild animals and throats. (Image: GD via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

While persecuted in prison, St. Blaise saved a boy from choking to death on a fish bone. Since then he has been considered the patron saint of throats. According to custom, a 40-day-old piece of panettone is consumed on Feb. 3 — at least by the older generations — to ward off sore throats for the year. The dry bread is usually toasted and topped with butter, mascarpone, or another creamy spread. 

Panettone production

Authentic Italian panettone (Image: Mojmir Churavy via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

While Italy is the home of panettone, only about 10 percent of their breads leave the country. Foreign companies readily fulfill the growing demand for this Italian treat. The largest producer is South America’s Bauducco, founded by an Italian immigrant to Brazil in the 1950s. This family enterprise produces over 200,000 tons of panettone each year from several industrial bakeries.

While purists decry the practice of producing panettone outside the strict Italian regulations, the general populace seems happy to enjoy what is readily available. In keeping with Milan’s ancient decree, panettone is offered at an affordable price so everyone can enjoy it on the holidays.

Of course, one can also seek out the finest Italian loaves, but they can run up to $50 or $60 each. The most devoted fans might like making it themselves.

Homemade panettone

Panettone ingredients: flour, lievito madre, eggs, butter, sugar, candied citrus peels, raisins (Image: Pasticceria Cucchi via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

If you are adventurous in the kitchen, panettone may become your new holiday passion. Begin the process by developing your lievito madre — a thick ferment of flour, purified water and honey. This will need attention every 48 hours at first, and then every 24 hours until it is ready to use 14 days later. 

Panettone dough takes days to ferment with a natural starter. (Image: grongar via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

In the meantime, you’ll want to order your baking forms — corrugated paper molds made especially for panettone. If you’re really aiming to impress, you could even make your own candied citrus peels — an added step, but something to keep you busy while you wait for your pokey panettone starter!

Once the lievito madre is ready, choose an authentic Italian panettone recipe. Use only the finest ingredients for your masterpiece, and be ready to exercise still more patience for the long fermentation required for the dough.

Keep a careful eye on the baking process to prevent a Toni-style mistake, and have some long skewers and large pots handy for hanging the finished loaves upside-down. Wait until they are fully cooled to wrap as gifts, but feel free to test your keeper a little warm. 

Good luck! If you succeed — congratulations! If not, you could try, try again, or humbly concede to leaving this complex endeavor to the professionals.