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Panettone is a large cylindrical bread with a domed top that likely originated in Milan, Italy. Though now made and eaten year round in Italy, and imported to many countries around the world including the US, it may have begun as a bread baked during the Christmas season. The bread has a spongy light texture, due to its special leavening process.
Unlike the quicker made recipes where fresh or dried yeast are added to ingredients, authentic panettone uses a starter, similar to a sourdough starter, to raise the bread. The whole leavening process can take 18-20 hours for commercial bakers, since the leavening is not as expansive as yeast would be, without lots of time. The result though, is undeniably different than most yeast breads. Though the starter contains yeast, the bread does not have that distinctive yeast flavor. Instead the distinctive flavors come from pieces of citron, raisins, and lemon zest, though you can find plain versions of the bread or even chocolate versions.
Due to the unique leavening process, it’s difficult to make this bread at home unless you’re willing to devote several days to making a starter, or you have a starter on hand. Fortunately, though most panettone companies make this bread in Italy, there are plenty of imports to the US, throughout Europe and elsewhere. You’ll find panettone in plenty of Italian delis, and specialty grocery stores, and you can order it online from a number of companies, especially around Christmas. The bread ships well and keeps well, and when it’s stale, it’s still delicious toasted or made into rich French toast.
Italians may eat panettone with mascarpone cheese, a little butter, or zabaglione. It can be served as breakfast bread, or eaten as an afternoon snack. Toasted slices of the bread may be served with sweet wines or spumante, and many enjoy dipping the bread in the wine.
There are several origin stories concerning the bread, some more likely than others. Some date the beginning of the bread to the Roman Empire, while others suggest the 16th century might have seen the advent of panettone. In particular, a painting by Pieter Bruegel (the father) shows bread that appears to be panettone. It clearly was made by the 18th century and is mentioned in writing.
One popular legend is loved because of its romantic nature. In the 15th century, a man fell in love with the daughter of an impoverished baker. Her name was Tonio, and the man feared that his wealthy family would never allow him to marry a poor girl. With the family, the man developed a recipe that became instantly popular, making Tonio and her family very wealthy. The result was the introduction of the bread to Milan, named pan de Tonio, and a happy marriage between the couple. In some versions, a man named Tonio or Toni, who was a baker, developed the bread to marry a wealthy young girl.
More likely the name comes from the size of the bread. Pan means bread, but by adding tone the word means large bread. This is a less exciting version of how the bread got its name, so the legend is often preferred since many consider it just as delightful as its result: delicious, light, and unique bread that is now popular throughout Italy and known throughout much of the world.