They arrived last week: the top of the fridge in the bakery at the bottom of my building now has a cardboard box crown, half containing pandoro, the other half panettone. “They are the long-life ones,” Angela behind the cash desk reminds me, before unwrapping a sweet: “They will last until next June.”
“I might be dead by June!” says a lady paying for a packet of chickpeas. “Well, you should wait and buy one of the ones we bake in December,” Angela laughed. “They won’t last until June, and they are better for it.”
Star-shaped pandoro, or golden bread, originated in Verona, while domed panettone are a speciality of Milan. The origins of both are surrounded by urban legend. What is certain, though, is that they are both festive breads that came about because an ordinary food, namely pane (bread), was enriched with egg, butter, sugar and possibly spices and jewel-like candied fruit, which transformed it into a celebratory food. While foods have always travelled for the rich, it was the unification of Italy in 1861, along with industrialisation and transportation, that saw the diffusion of regional food for other classes. In 1931, in their Guida Gastronomica d’Italia, the Touring Club of Italy declared the “panettone of Milan” the national Christmas cake. This isn’t to say the loyalty to local festive breads didn’t remain strong: the Romans to their pangiallo (yellow bread) and highly peppered panpepato; the Tuscans to their panforte; the Bolognese their panone. But, at Christmas time, the people who could afford one bought a panettone, too.
A panettone has been as much a part of our English family Christmas as heavily injected fruit cake since the middle of the 80s. A puffed-up Italian cake you can tear is how I first remember it, picking and stripping the bits left behind on the paper. At some point, it became our Christmas Day breakfast cake, a habit that has remained: mouthfuls eaten in between opening presents, the panettone wrapper getting tangled up with the wrapping paper and dressing-gown belts. It is now my job to bring a panettone (or three) back with me from Rome, which means they are inevitably a bit squashed. I am loyal to the bakery at the bottom of our building and their chestnut-topped, classic panettone. Also, because I don’t plan to die before June, I buy a long-life one to put in the cupboard, which I eat for breakfast for a week in March.
Our treat this year is going to be a panettone from Mammamassaia in Abruzzo, made with the best ingredients by traditional methods, then allowed a long rise and 100-day aging: these panettone begin life in October to be ready for Christmas. The label suggests leaving them somewhere warm for a few hours – near a fire or warm cooker – before cutting them with a serrated knife. As well as for breakfast, I like panettone for Boxing Day supper, warmed in the oven for a few minutes, then served Anna del Conte-style with a fat blob of mascarpone that melts obligingly.
Having bought the panettone, I am going to make panforte: a strong bread that doesn’t so much make me think of bread as nougat crossed with a heavily spiced, dense fruit cake. Classic Sienese recipes, or at least those not shrouded in secrecy, call for 300g candied orange and lemon. I use a third of that, so 100g candied fruit and then 200g dried, pitted figs and prunes.
Thanks to the honey, spices and the resilient nature of dried fruit and nuts, panforte will last as long as the box crown on top of the fridge, but is best after two weeks. Keep in a tin and, just before serving, dust generously with more icing, before cutting into strong slices.
Prep 20 min
Cook 10 min
Makes 16 slices
250g caster sugar
300g mix candied orange, citron, pitted dates, prunes or sultanas
250g roasted almonds or hazelnuts, or a mix of the two
100g plain flour
½ tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground cloves
½ tsp ground nutmeg
Icing sugar, to dust
Line the base and sides of a 20cm cake tin with baking paper. Heat the oven to 220C (200C fan)/gas 7. In small pan over a low heat, warm the honey and sugar until the sugar has completely dissolved. Pour into a bowl.
Roughly chop the dried fruit and nuts, and add to the bowl, followed by the flour and spices, stirring as well as you can.
Scape the mixture into the lined tin, then use a knife dipped in hot water to smooth the top. Dust with icing sugar, then bake for 10 minutes.
Leave to cool before removing from the tin, then dust with more icing sugar, and serve.
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