The bread dates back a few centuries to northern Italy.

By Chris Malloy
December 13, 2019
Abby Hocking

Those boxed breads that appear in grocery stores this time of year? They can be one of the winter holiday’s best baked goods.

The coming of the winter holidays means the re-emergence of many great seasonal foods, like the delicious and misunderstood panettone. For those unfamiliar with the puffy, paper-wrapped loaves, panettone is an Italian Christmas bread studded with candied fruit and often chocolate or nuts. Its round top is dark. Its interior is unlike that of any other bread: compact but light, deeply rich from butter and eggs but airy and perfumed.

Many professional bakers have appreciation for panettone. That’s because the yeast-risen bread is one of the hardest things to bake.

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Though panettone has a long tradition, it isn’t ancient. The bread dates back a few centuries to northern Italy, specifically Milan—one part of the country that sees snow in the winter. Today, panettone appears in grocery store and specialty shops throughout the U.S. The more widely available versions are made through modern, industrial methods. At the same time, artisan bakers both here and overseas are crafting panettone in small batches.

As you might expect, there are differences between the large-scale and artisan versions. But before we address those, let’s cover the bread’s key features.

Panettone has many signatures. They begin with its uncommon texture. Wedge-like slices are soft with a little bit of a spongy pushback to your bite, but not too much. The buttery richness is so intense that it almost spills over from a flavor into a texture. The outside of the bread is baked brown, a slightly firmer veneer. Bits of filling vary each bite.

Another hallmark of panettone is its diversity of fillings. Most loaves have two or three scattered though the yellowish middles, appearing as flecks suspended in the cooked dough. Fillings often include chocolate pieces, or nuts like pistachio or almond. You’re very likely to see candied fruit, like citron or lemon rind, and perhaps even darker fruit like raisins, figs, or cherries. Panettone makers tend to focus on just a few fillings, keeping flavors on the simple side.

Yet another defining feature is the bread’s shape. Panettone has studs of filling peeking out from its domed top, which is shaped almost like the vast churches of the country where the bread was born. Panettone can be tall or short, thick or thin, and often rises in a papered cylinder shape to a domed top that rises above the wrapping.

Panettone is a specialty food that varies greatly in price. A small panettone from a large producer may cost just a few dollars. Panettone produced by smaller artisans cost much more, generally $25 to $50, and even higher.

Why is some panettone so expensive? Because of its difficulty to craft on an artisan scale. You might think to try to save money and bake this bread yourself, but panettone is one of the few foods that, like pastrami, you should probably leave to the professionals.

Though a standard grocery store panettone will usually carry the bread’s signatures, especially the candied-fruit perfume and buttery dough, an artisan panettone can take these elements to another level. Small-batch panettone tends to be less spongy, more swirled inside, and with a gentler, airier dissolve. Artisans carefully monitor dough hydration, pH, and yeast activity. They practice for years to know the balances, so that their hard-won domed loaves don’t, for instance, collapse on themselves like doomed souffles. To set the bread, many artisans even hang it upside down.

Luckily, the world of panettone is richly diverse. Each loaf is different. And you can eat them in different ways. You can eat them in the morning or at midnight, a few days old and toasted, or even turned to French toast or bread pudding. It’s a fun world to explore, one that can make the winter holidays even better.

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