This is the time of year when Italian delis and e-commerce sites showcase those imposingly tall boxes, each one housing the dome-shaped sweet Christmas bread called panettone. There’s a good chance you’ll receive a panettone as a gift or, beguiled by the sheer size of the box, sweep one into your shopping cart.
First, a bit of background. Panettone (“big bread”) originated in Milan and once bakers figured out how to make a shelf-stable version of this regional delicacy, spread far beyond. You can buy a panettone like the one in my photo for about $8, or opt for the $70 Pasticceria Biasetto panettone, made with long-rising natural starter, Sicilian almonds and organic eggs from the baker’s neighbor.
I don’t agree with the panettone-hating Guardian writer who compared the taste of these traditional dome-shaped Christmas cakes to “Gandhi’s flipflop after three months in the desert.” But I know where she’s coming from. All too often, panettone has a dryish consistency that makes you want to quit after a bite or two. And the flavors don’t exactly sing.
Personally, I think there’s something to be said for the versions enhanced with extra ingredients. There’s panettone crusted with hazelnuts, panettone marbled with chocolate, panettone laced with Amarena cherries. Last year I wrote about my favorite, Panbriacone, a panettone-based “drunken” sweet bread spiked with passito, vin santo or rum. But the Bonci family’s production is so small their products aren’t exported to the U.S.–I’d have to catch a flight to Europe to enjoy it.
Back to that basic panettone problem. What to do with it? With its brioche-like texture, panettone is apparently great for desserts such as a lemon-curd bread pudding. I also like the idea of serving slices with zabaglione or crema di mascarpone, as one blogger suggested.
But nah, not this holiday season. If I’m going to bake, it’ll be biscotti or the bûche de Noel I’ve been planning to make for the last decade or two. Here are four ideas that won’t keep you in the kitchen.
Panettone Cubes: Cut the panettone in 2-inch cubes and pile in a pretty bowl, as one of my friends did when we met recently for Italian conversation. Accompanied by caffe latte, it was just the right thing to spur verb-retrieving brain cells at 8 a.m. Equally pleasant in the afternoon with tea or a glass of spumante wine. This is the way to go with a higher-end panettone, which is more likely to be moist.
Panettone Toast: Toast panettone slices until golden brown. Spread with butter and perhaps a bit of marmalade or fig preserves.
Panettone French Toast: Cut the bread in thin wedges and soak in your usual mixture of beaten egg and milk. No need for extra seasonings. Fry in melted butter until nicely browned and serve with maple syrup and fruit salad.
Panettone “Churros”: Cut strips from panettone slices. Dip and fry in the same way as the French toast. Coat with a mixture of sugar and finely grated citrus zest.