Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Panettone - Christmas Bread from Milan

Panettone is traditional Christmas bread from Milano. Originally it was simply a large loaf of bread. The patriarch of the family was to oversee the preparation of the bread and before cooking it was to cut a cross in the top of the dough. The bread was to be consumed at the family dinner during the Christmas day festivities, “il ciocco”.

The ritual was for the patriarch to make the sign of the cross, place a large piece of wood, usually oak, in the fireplace with a branch of Juniper underneath. The Juniper was then lit.

Wine was place in a goblet and a small portion was sprayed on the fire. The patriarch then drank from the goblet and then passed the goblet to all present. A coin was then thrown on the burning oak log and the patriarch then gave a coin to each of the members of the family.

Three loaves of bread were then given to the patriarch who proceeded to cut a piece and put it away for the following year’s festivities.

The log represented the tree of good and evil, the fire the redemption of Jesus Christ and the bread, early version of panettone, represented the Divine Trinity. Over the years other popular beliefs were added: the previous year’s bread was said to have the power to heal throat illnesses and the large bread became panettone.

I can attest to the medicinal virtues of panettone. San Biagio is the Saint protector of the throat. Every year at S. Biaggio, February 3, panettone is sold 2 for 1. When you are hungry that difference in price sure will help your budget! There are many ways you can prepare a slightly stale panettone but my favorite is fried in butter.

To prepare your own panettone:

This recipe requires Biga however you can create a faster version by dissolving 1 packet of active dry yeast in ½ cup of warm water and a teaspoon of sugar. Leave it alone for about 10 minutes and mix with ½ cup of flour. Let rise for 1 hour. This mix will make about 150 grams of sponge that can substitute for the biga.

Ingredients first dough:

150 grams of Biga
1 package yeast
3 tablespoons of warm water
1 teaspoon sugar
2 eggs (room temperature)
1 ¼ cups of all purpose flour (200 grams)
¼ cup sugar (50 grams) (soft – room temperature)
½ stick of butter (50 grams)

Place the biga in a large mixing bowl. Dissolve a teaspoon of sugar in the warm water and mix in the yeast. Let stand for about 10 minutes. Add the water-yeast to the biga and mix well with a metal spoon.

Add the eggs, flour and sugar and mix well. Finally, mix in the softened butter. Work it thoroughly. The dough will be more liquid than firm. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled, about 2 hours.

Ingredients for the second dough:

2 medium eggs (room temperature)
3 egg whites (room temperature)
¾ cup sugar (150 grams)
2 teaspoons of vanilla extract or the vanilla from 1 vanilla bean
1 teaspoon salt
2 sticks of butter [230 grams] (softened – room temperature)
3 ½ cups of unbleached all purpose flour (450 grams)
½ cup flour to knead the dough

Uncover the first dough. In a separate bowl whisk the eggs, egg yolks, sugar, vanilla and salt until the sugar is completely incorporated. The mixture will take on a light yellow color. Finally, add the softened butter and whisk thoroughly.

Add the mixture to the dough and mix energetically with a metal spoon. The dough will still be rather liquid. Place the dough on a floured surface and knead until the dough is firm enough to maintain its shape. Knead in as much dough as necessary, remember this is a bread and not a cake.

Ingredients for the filling. Here is where you can have fun. The traditional Milanese mix is:

1 ½ cup of raisins (gold moistened in water for ½ hour, drained and dried)
½ cup of candied citron
½ cup of candied orange
zest of a lemon
zest of an orange
¼ cup of flour

If you use anything candied place the ingredients in a mixing bowl with the flour. Shake them around a bit so they are covered with flour.

You may also substitute the above mixture with chocolate or peanut butter chips, butterscotch, add walnuts or chopped pecans to the above mix just about anything works. Since not everyone like canditi (candied fruit) there are versions with raisins and no fruit, without raisins with candied fruit, with chocolate covered raisins with/without fruit. The filling can be, as it was in medieval times whatever was available and your family likes.

Let the dough rise 4 to 5 hours, should about triple. I actually prepare the dough after dinner and let it rise all night. In the morning I prepare the additives and then cut the dough into 2 pieces.

I roll the dough flat to about 1 inch, just like cinnamon rolls, ¼ the filling mixture on each rolled piece and then rolled into a log, just like cinnamon rolls. Flatten again place the rest of the mixture on each flattened 1 inch sheet and roll again. Take the ends and fold them under to create a ball. Place your hands on the table around the base of the ball, palms up, as if you were offering the ball to some deity. Snap the side of your hands together underneath the ball of dough, lift and rotate 20 degrees. This will stretch the surface of the dough and make it perfectly round. Once completed place in a 1 lb. (just under 500 grams) panettone mold.

A word about panettone molds. If you think most households, in Italy, have a “panettone mold” you are wrong. We do have a wider variety of baking pans so we would use a 15 cm. Round baking pan and then add parchment paper to make it higher.

Here in the US, take a 1 lb. coffee can (empty), place some parchment paper around the inside in a way that it also extends the height to about 1 hand high (8-9 inches).

Butter the panettone mold or the adapted pan or coffee container with parchment paper and place the ball in the bottom. Let it rise at least 2 hours and more likely 3-4 hours until it reaches just under the top of the parchment paper.

Cut a cross in the dough about ¼ inch deep with a really sharp knife or if you do not have a REALLY SHARP knife cut with a razor. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and allow the entire oven to come to tempature, at least 15 minutes, better ½ hour.

Just before you put the panettone in the oven cut the cross again for another ¼ inch. Reduce the heat to 375 degrees and bake for 25 minutes. You can tell when your panettone is done by inserting a sharp knife, if it comes out clean, it is done.

Finally cool on racks for 30-40 minutes and remove from mold, coffee can or whatever you are using to make the shape.

A note: all the great bakers will tell you to place the panettone on its side on pillows once removed from the mold, else it will collapse. My experience is yes it will reduce by about 10 % but if you are that concerned just turn the mold on it side. Do we really think that the “Sciur Maria” placed her panettone on pillows? I do not think so. She took it out and placed it on the window sill or directly on the table. When it is this good that 10% of commercial “fluffiness” really will not make a difference!


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