Panettone, a Milanese dessert
Panettone is the most classical of all seasonal desserts and behind the launch of Italian pastry worldwide.
The first records of a cake similar to panettone date back to the 13th century, when a yellow cake filled with raisins made its first appearance in the Milanese countryside.
Legend has it that the name derives from a certain Toni, a young cook working in the kitchen of Ludovico Sforza (1452-1508), who during an important banquet was forced to improvise a new dessert, as the original cake was ruined. The cake became a huge success and received the denomination “Pan del Toni”, later contracted in “panettone”.
This is just one of the many, more or less imaginative assumptions of the origin of the name.
Towards the end of the nineteenth, beginning of the twentieth century, some renowned pastry shops, particularly Marchesi, Le Tre Marie, Cova, Biffi, “Scala”, Peck, Vergani, Sant’Ambreus, Taveggia and the Confetteria Giuseppe Baj of the Piazza del Duomo, on the corner of Via Santa Radegonda produced panettones by following an in those days canonical recipe.
The most entrepreneurial pastry chefs – and Giuseppe Baj was one of the first – encouraged by their success, started to “propagandize” the product and distribute it first in Italy and later in other countries as well.
Worth noting are the wide range of refined graphics of the product boxes and advertisements, intially in the rich style of Art Nouveau and later on in an Art Deco pattern, at the same time when similar products flourished during the Victorian era.
World War I put a temporary stop to the good fortune of panettone, by swiping away any international business on the one hand and leading to cheaper productions, meant for large distribution, on the other.
This is why higher quality productions decreased and became confined to a niche of more demanding and richer panettone lovers, whilst brands like Motta and Alemagna, who offered their reinvented “tall” versions at a lower price, established their hold on the market through products meant for mass consumption.
It must be said that both Angelo Motta and Gino Alemagna were able to create from scratch brands that would become known all over the world, working as simple workers in the most famous pastry shops of their times, showing excellent entrepreneurship as so many Milanese before them. Moreover, they had the substantive merits of making panettones known on a planetary scale, something unthinkable before then.
Nowadays, panettones are experiencing global expansion, mainly thanks to their incredible taste, but also because of the extremely high level of Italian workmanship and through a growing number of important chefs, who started to use them “in a creative way”, by inventing interesting variations on their usage.
A challenging production
Making panettone is complex, it needs top quality ingredients and mastery, a combination that can only be appreciated in the highest level of handmade or industrial productions. Its main ingredients are flour, yeast, eggs, sugar, butter, sultanas, candied fruit and vanilla. Quality productions do not contain any preservatives and the most expensive ingredients such as butter are of excellent quality and added in abundancy.
Needless to say that not all ingredients are the same. Top-end manufacturers purchased sultanas and candied fruit exclusively from the best Mediterranean markets. In addition, vanilla had to come rigorously from Madagascar or Tahiti, and chosen or specially produced flour, butter and eggs had to meet the highest standards of quality and freshness. In the meantime, the mother dough was being nurtured and cherished to be passed down the generations.
Panettones are characterized by the quality of their ingredients, the accuracy and duration of their production process but also by their shape.
Classical panettones, like the Baj panettone or the ones from the historical pastry shops, are dome-shaped, while the cylinder shape became famous at a much later time, particularly through the Motta and Alemagna panettones.
More recent versions come in a variety of coverings and ingredients or lack of. Interesting are the experiments of famous chefs who use panettone as part of some of their dishes.
For many a panettone “philologist” though, these “mitigations” represent a degeneration of the extraordinary original product, considered perfect and in no need of any modifications or additions.