Whoever finds himself in Italy these days will see the panettone, a Milanese cake traditionally consumed during Christmastime, being on display in any café, pastry shop and grocery shop windows. It is a baked product, about 4.7 inches high, weighing 2.2 pounds, characterized by a soft dough, a cylindrical-shaped base and a dome-shaped top. The golden cracked crust on the top has a crossed cut – the scarpatura –, while the yellow sponge has a cell-texture, the so-called “holes” and a distinctive sweet and sour aroma. The recipe requires simple and natural ingredients: wheat, sugar, butter, eggs, milk, candied fruit – orange and cedar peel –, and currant.
Nowadays there are a lot of versions of panettone on sale, especially regional variations, which meet with the consumers’ new tastes on the one hand, and ‘betray’ the recipe’s authenticity on the other hand. Hence we have glazed, cream-filled, chocolate, lemon, yogurt panettone and even the soymilk version for vegan customers. The panettone is connected to Christmas since the early 1600s but it is not just a Christmas cake, since it represents an appreciated gift, once wrapped in refined tin boxes alongside with sparkling wine and other delicacies.
But where does the term panettone come from? The root is quite surely pane – bread – (panetto being the bread dough), plus the augmentative suffix -one added to the ending, on account of its big size. Indeed, until the first decades of the 20th century, the panettone still had the appearance of a loaf, short and round. It is attributed to the patissier Angelo Motta the idea to bake a taller and softer cake, letting the dough rise into the guêpière, a kind of paper cup that sticks to the cake during the cooking and gives it its vertical shape.
However, since this is a very ancient cake, several legends surround its origins. The first one tells the story of Ludovico Sforza’s chef, Toni, who unluckily burnt the dinner dessert and so, having nothing to replace it with, decided to serve a baked pie the shop boy had cooked mixing the leftovers. The host liked the confection so much that he asked for its name and was given the following reply: “l’è ‘l pan de Toni”, that is Milanese for “It’s Toni’s bread”. A more credible hypothesis is that the term originated from pan de ton, meaning the “classy bread” for the rich, different from the millet flour bread that the poor used to eat. As further proof of that theory, the Guilds’ Statute of Milan prohibited bakers to make white bread, but this right was extraordinarily granted during Christmastime.
There are some cakes and sweet bread in other European Countries that can be compared to the meneghin specialty, such as the Christmas Pudding in Britain, the Weihnachtsstollen in Germany and the Cozonac in Bulgaria and Romania. The Christmas Pudding (known as Plum Pudding, plum standing for currant) has got a round shape, too, and is connected to the Christmas festivities.
Over the centuries the panettone has gained its “aristocratic titles”, becoming the subject for literary works by famous Italian writers like Pirandello, Calvino, and Moravia, or turning up in artworks such as Still life with fruit (1644-1666) by the Dutch painter Rootius. Moreover, some high standing personalities contributed to give the Milanese cake great prestige, for example Manzoni, Rossini, Garibaldi, prince Metternich and Pope Pius IX, since their predilection for that gluttony was well-known.
As time went by, the panettone got more and more popularity, so that it was selected to be the prize to award the Tour of Italy’s winner, and then, the Tour of France’s winner, too. Despite its old origins, the panettone never ceases to be reinvented and to surprise: starting from the traditional recipe, we have now sophisticated versions, which include the18-Karat gold leaves panettone, limited edition.
To sum up, the panettone shows off on all the Italian tables set for Christmas celebrations, and symbolizes joy and feast, just as the title of the early twentieth-century artist Ettore Mazzini’s illustrated book suggested: Nel Pane la vita. Nel Panettone la gioia (Life in bread. Joy in panettone). In more recent times, a new Italian term was coined, cinepanettone (from the words cinema and panettone), to mean Italian comedy films released each year around Christmastime and focused on the holidays abroad of stereotypical Italians.
Finally, a fun fact. In Italy there is a joking rivalry, a kind of “derby” between panettonisti – panettone fans – and pandoristi – pandoro fans –, being the pandoro a similar Christmas cake with no raisins nor candied fruit. Actually those ingredients do not satisfy everyone’s taste and hence the hilarious and also childish expedient to get rid of them by concealing them into a napkin!
Milano a Natale. Tradizioni meneghine e luci della città in festa, https://studylibit.com
The History of Panettone, https://web.archive.org
The Legend of Panettone, by Natasha Lardera, 12/10/2007, www.italy.org
Food History of Panettone: the Christmas cake born in Milan, www.hotelwindsormilan.com
Panettone makers want to keep Christmas cake Italian, 12/12/2007, https://uh.reuters.com
Panettone and Pandoro: Iconic Sweets of the Italian Christmas, www.honestcooking.com
Panettone: a traditional sweet bread is a symbol of Christmas Greetings, www.turosdolci.pturo.com
From medieval Christmas wheat breads to Panettone, http://en-flamigni.it
The Panettone Legends, by Barry Lillie, 12/24/2013, www.italymagazine.com
Author: Lucia Golino, PhD student in “European Languages and Specialized Terminology” at the University of Naples “Parthenope”