Each country has its own traditional dishes and desserts for Christmas and the holidays. The French make Thirteen Desserts of Provence, Germans make Christstollen, Brits make Christmas pudding and Italians make panettone.
This sweet bread originated in Milan (or so the story is told) and has become a popular item all over the world, including in the United States. Just about every grocery store, culinary outlet and Italian bakery sells panettone loaves during the holiday season.
The history of panettone is a bit vague and uncertain, but there's no question about the tradition of eating a few slices of it during Christmas and New Year's. Whether you're Italian or just love a sweet, delicate bread studded with golden raisins and scented with citrus, having panettone during the holidays is a must.
While you could purchase it at a grocery store, such as Whole Foods or Hubbell & Hudson, or a culinary retail store, such as Williams-Sonoma, you should try making it at home. This year I decided to make the bread at home rather than purchasing it at a store. Here's how you do it:
After looking for the most authentic recipe (and the one most recommended by users) for panettone, I found one from King Arthur Flour to be the best for me to follow during my first attempt at making panettone.
But before you dive into making this sweet bread at home, understand that it is a two-day investment.
First, you must make the biga, or the yeast starter. This will need to rest for at least eight hours, so either make it at night and finish the bread in the morning, or prepare it in the morning and finish the panettone later that day. Combine 3/4 cup of all-purpose flour, a pinch of yeast and 1/3 cup of water in a medium-size bowl and cover with a towel.
Once the biga has rested for at least eight hours, it's time to combine the dough ingredients. Place the biga in a large bowl with 2 1/4 cups of all-purpose flour, ¼ cup of water, two eggs, half a stick of unsalted butter, 1 1/4 teaspoons of salt, one tablespoon of instant yeast and 1/3 cup of granulated sugar. This recipe calls for 1/2 teaspoon of Fiori di Sicilia, which is an extract of vanilla, citrus and flower essences -- it can be translated as "flowers of Sicily." However, if like me you do not have this on hand, you can use orange extract (or orange oil). Basically, you want to add a citrus element to the bread.
Once everything has been added to the bowl, use an electric mixer with a dough hook attachment to blend all the ingredients together. The dough should be smooth and soft, not sticky.
Cover this bowl with a towel and let the dough rest for nearly an hour and a half. This is the first proofing.
After the dough becomes puffy, it's time to incorporate the dried fruit (1/2 cup each). You can use a variety of dried fruits including pineapple, cranberries, apricots or cherries (and even some nuts). It's up to you. Traditional panettone has raisins (dark and golden), so be sure to include those. However, over the years, a variety of flavors have been created, including chocolate. At this point, you should also add orange or lemon zest to enhance the citrus elements in the bread.
If you can find a panettone pan, by all means use one. But if you can't, any pan with tall sides will work. I used a festive star-shaped cake pan; bundt pans will also work, as will any other circular-shaped tall cake pan, about two quarts in size.
Place the fruit-studded dough ball in the pan, cover with a towel and let the dough rise to the top (or near the top) of the pan. This will take approximately one hour.
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As soon as the dough rises, place it in a 400-degree oven for ten minutes. After ten minutes, reduce the oven temperature to 375 and let the bread bake for another ten minutes. Then reduce the oven temperature again by 25 degrees and let the bread bake for 25 minutes more. Reducing the oven temperature will help keep the top of the bread from burning before the center is fully cooked.
If you follow this recipe carefully, your bread will be slightly doughy in the middle, or at least mine was. I left the bread in the oven at 350 degrees for another 15 minutes.
Let the bread cool in the pan for ten minutes, just as you would with a cake, then you're ready to serve.
Eat a slice of the sweet bread with coffee or tea, or turn it into French toast.