At just about all specialty food stores, as well as a good number of regular supermarkets, you’re going to find elegant boxes of panettone available around the holidays. The boxes are always adorned with illustrations of what’s inside, but an illustration is never as good as actually seeing the product. Panettone is a somewhere between a bread and a cake in taste, a sweet yeasted bread that is traditionally served around Christmas in Italy.
The dough for panettone is quite rich and contains plenty of butter and eggs. The addition of all the fat to the dough gives it a very fine, tender texture. It can also weigh the dough down, so the bread is given a very long rise to ensure that it is fluffy, not dense, and rises up very high. Traditionally, the bread is baked in octagonal or hexagonal pans, but just about any shape or size can be used. I’ve even used a bundt pan before! Aside from the butter and eggs, most of the flavor of the panettone comes from the add-ins. The most traditional have dried fruits, candied citrus, lemon and/or orange zest and may be doused with amaretto before serving. These days, there is some more variety, and you might see chocolate chip panettone, or panettone soaked in rum for something a little more grown-up.
The bread is said to have originated in Milan at least 500 years ago, but wasn’t widely produced until the early 1900s. Milanese bakers began to bake the breads in large quantities and distributed them all over Italy. The breads were a hit and panettone took off, becoming a staple where it once was a specialty.