Roy Shvartzapel’s masterful take on the traditional Christmas bread is a world away from the stale stuff on store shelves.
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Pastry chef Roy Shvartzapel has eaten a lot of delicious things. He never would have put panettone—the sweet, fruit-studded bread that's typically eaten around Christmas—in that category, but then he tried a version that changed his mind. Pierre Hermé, the famed French pâtissier, made a panettone that was flaky and light, nothing like the cheap, stale ones crowding grocery store aisles during the holidays. "I had never tasted anything like it," Shvartzapel said. 

Though he didn't know it at the time, Hermé's panettone set Shvartzapel on a journey toward perfecting his own panettone craft. After working for Hermé in Paris, Shvartzapel staged at Ferran Adrià's El Bulli in Catalonia, Spain. While there, he tasted another life-changing panettone from another world-renowned pastry chef, Paco Torreblanca. Upon learning that both Hermé and Torreblanca had learned to make panettone from a man named Iginio Massari, the so-called "panettone whisperer," Shvartzapel traveled to Milan to do the same.

Panettone
Credit: Photo by Justin Walker / Food Styling by Ali Ramee / Prop Styling by Lydia Pursell

Panettone is believed to have originated in 15th century Milan, or more accurately, in Lombardy, the Northern Italian region of which Milan is the capital. Back then, panettone was most likely made from wheat flour and without candied fruit, making it much more dense—and much less sweet—than the panettone we know today. Around the 19th century, bakers began incorporating ingredients like sugar, butter, eggs, and raisins, turning panettone into a more recognizable form. At the same time, an influx of Italians immigrated to South America and began putting a local spin on the traditional recipe, with additions like dried papaya or chocolate. These days, panettone must be made with 16% butter and at least 20% candied fruit for it to be considered authentic under Italian law.

RECIPE: Panettone

By 1930, a Milanese baker named Angelo Motta had figured out how to industrialize panettone by creating a conveyor belt inside of his bakery. Meanwhile, the South American markets for panettone were already thriving, thanks to two Italian entrepreneurs: Antonio D'Onofrio, who built a panettone empire in Peru, and Carlo Bauducco, who did the same in Brazil. Today, both brands continue to mass-produce panettone in South America and abroad.

Shvartzapel's panettone is the polar opposite of mass produced; it's made by hand in small batches. After learning the basics from Massari in Milan, whose panettone takes 62 hours to make, Shvartzapel returned to the US. He started selling panettone of his own, and in December 2015, he founded his company, From Roy.

Shvartzapel's process is slow, laborious, and hyper-dependent upon precision. "It's so unforgiving," he said. "There's no, 'Oh, I messed this up. Let me just mix another batch.' You have another 40, 50 hours before you have a shot at redeeming yourself."

Although Shvartzapel said, "The world of panettone is unmasterable," his panettone is pretty much perfect. The holiday months are prime season, but Shvartzapel is in business year-round, offering an endless roster of flavors that change seasonally, from Mint Chip to Gianduja Lemon, plus newer products like brioche and a hazelnut chocolate spread.

"I like to tell people I'm a gift company," Shvartzapel says. "No one wakes up saying, 'I'm hungry, let me order panettone.' It's either a gift for someone or you're indulging in a gift for yourself." So this holiday season, treat yourself or your loved ones to panettone like you've never had it before.

Our favorite mail-order panettone: