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Holiday-spanning bread: all bread bakers can learn a thing or two from the long life of panettone

Updated on February 27, 2016

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I HAVE LONG ADMIRED panettone, the ultimate raisin bread, the ideal toast and French toast, a great base for poached fruit, and a substitute for bread in bread pudding which redefines the dish. Panettone looks like the back of an Italian Renaissance cathedral--it has very high walls and a perfectly even browned dome. When sliced, it reveals unusually large holes, golden raisins, and bits of candied orange and citron rind. It has lovely jagged edges when it's pulled apart, and is a warm yellow from eggs and butter. The crust is thick and soft, with all the savor of any crust but more of it to go around. It is less buttery and airier than brioche (to my mind, advantages). Newcomers to panettone keep picking at it until there's none left. They are surprised at its lightness, delighted by its indeterminate status--between bread and cake--and eager to pinpoint the various flavors, which include vanilla and occasionally lemon and citron extracts.

My search has been for the secret of panettone's longevity. Manufacturers stamp panettone with a pull date of six months from the day they package it. How can panettone last so long, with just a twisted-closed plastic bag to protect it? I recently spent many hours in basement pastry kitchens in Milan, where old methods are still used, and in the gleaming laboratories of Italian industrial bakers. I learned that in my own kitchen baking panettone would be a very sometime thing. But I also learned a good deal about how to make bread last a long time, and what I learned will change the way I bake any risen dough.

In my researches I tasted every brand of panettone I could find. Clearly it is not just my favorite sweet bread: Perugina, a large manufacturer of panettone, reports that its sales in the United States have more than doubled in the past three years, and those of Ferrara Foods, a leading U.S. importer of panettone, have also more than doubled since it began selling its own brand five years ago. Also increasing are sales of colomba, an Easter panettone with orange rind only, baked in the shape of a dove, and topped with toasted almonds. Now is an opportune time to find panettone in gourmet shops. Shipments of colomba are just arriving, and leftover stock of panettone is available at reduced prices--in perfectly edible condition, for reasons I finally fathomed


PANETTONE LOOKS as if it had been the same for centuries, but in fact it has been high and airy for little more than sixty years. It is a creation of industry, and, as is rarely the case, industry still makes it best. Earlier panettone was baked in a low, round shape, like any hearth loaf. The two stories of its origins most commonly circulated by manufacturers are predictably romantic. One centers on a Milanese nobleman with the first name of Ughetto (sounds suspiciously like ughetta and uvetta, both of which mean "raisin"), who in 1490, for love of the neighboring baker's daughter, went to work for the baker. By using his connections to make popular a specialty he had invented after the scantiest of training, he turned the father of his beloved into a rich man and won the daughter. The other story is of a baker named Toni who sold a lot of a bread that his fans dubbed pan de Toni. Often the stories are conflated, so Toni becomes the eager suitor.


The true origins are certainly more commonplace. Breads enriched with expensive fats and nuts and fruits probably were used by the Romans as votive offerings and evolved into Christian festival breads. The Italian food scholar Massimo Alberini cites a reference in a 1644 book to a Christmas bread containing candied pumpkin, pepper, and raisins. The name needs no eponymous baker to explain it. Pane means "bread," and -one means, roughly, "king-sized," as in the elevation of a simple vegetable soup, or minestra, into a life-sustaining minestrone.

Despite the perception in Italy that panettone is exclusively Milanese, it has relatives all over the north, including various kinds of focaccia (in many parts of the north these are sweetened egg breads, rather than the pizzalike breads that have recently become popular here); panettone Genovese, from Genoa, which often contains pignoli and pistachio nuts, fennel seeds, and liqueurs; gubana, dense with nuts and raisins, which is served at Easter in Udine and Cividale, in the northeastern corner of Italy; and the specialty of Verona--pandoro, a star-shaped golden mountain of rich, buttery bread without raisins or candied fruit and with a finer, denser crumb than panettone's.


Today's version of panettone, however, is entirely Milanese in origin. In 1921 the baker Angelo Motta decided to make his traditional panettone softer and higher. He constructed cylindrical paper baking forms to give the dough something to rise against, and added more raisins and candied citron and orange rind than usual. Soon his friend and rival Gioacchimo Alemagna was making a similarly deluxe panettone. During the period between the wars the two made panettone popular throughout Italy and made it synonymous with Milan. They also pioneered brand-name recognition for a food product, still comparatively rare in a country where people rely on their local markets for a wide range of goods. Grand cafes bearing their names became fashionable meeting places in the centers of important cities. By the 1930s Motta and Alemagna had made it acceptable to eat panettone year-round, whereas before it had been eaten only at Christmas and at the feast of San Biagio, on February 3, as symbolic insurance against hunger throughout the year

Gelato e panettone
Gelato e panettone


Motta and Alemagna are now run by the same company, and their panettones are essentially the same, With slight differences in flavoring (emphasis on raisins in Motta, on citron and orange in Alemagna). They are also far from the best available. On a recent trip to Italy I toured the factory near Verona where the two are made, and was dismayed at the complete industrialization of the process and the bright orange color of the dehydrated butter I saw in the big mixing tubs. Competition is heated in the panettone market--no wonder most of the companies I asked for factory tours regarded me as a spy for another company. Le Tre Marie, considered the best industrial baker in Milan, refused to let me in.

I boarded the train to Verona on a hot tip: a journalist who had participated in a panettone-tasting told me that a darkhorse bakery named Paluani and the famous Bauli bakery, both in Verona, were the best in Italy (the two companies are better known for their pandoro). At Paluani salesmen chatted with me about national preferences--Germans like pandoro, the French like panettone, Australians like both--while I cooled my heels for an hour, and then explained that I couldn't see the factory. At Bauli the director of foreign sales at last acceded to my request for a factory visit, during which he repeatedly interrupted the head of technology, saying, "Are you sure you should tell him that?"

I was impressed by the high quality of the ingredients and by the manufacturing process at Bauli, which still includes nonindustrial steps, like the addition of butter by hand. It also allows for a rising time of more than the twenty-four hours that is standard at many bakeries (in contrast, Motta passes dough through a series of temperature-controlled chambers for seven hours) and for slow cooling (Motta dehydrates the finished panettone in a vacuum for three minutes, and proudly compares the process with the old way, which took twelve hours). "I'm giving him the door but not the key," the impatient technician finally told the sales director. "You're worried because you don't know what's really secret." But I had already discovered the key to what I wanted to know for home baking. My search was not for the amount of emulsifier in a proprietary formula. The key was the rising.

ITALIAN BAKERS, including industrial ones, use lievito naturale, or "natural yeast," instead of commercial yeast in panettone and pandoro. Making homemade yeast is a five- to seven-day process involving flour, water, and something yeast can easily feed on, like potatoes or fruit or molasses. Once the "starter" is made, it will last indefinitely but requires weekly nourishment with more flour and water. Whatever is baked with it not only keeps significantly longer than what commercial yeast produces but also has a more interesting and complex flavor. Because homemade yeast requires so much attention, bakers bother with it only for the holiday breads, which their customers expect to taste the way they always did.

Yeasts are single-celled microscopic fungi that sprout buds and reproduce very quickly when given food, moisture, and warmth (not heat: most strains of yeast die at 140[degrees]F). Each yeast plant has the capacity to store food and produces an enzyme that breaks down its food source--say, flour or potato starch--into simple sugars. It turns the sugars it likes into carbon dioxide and alcohol, and leaves the rest. The carbon dioxide aerates the dough; the alcohol interacts during baking with acids formed by bacteria, producing esters, which flavor bread. Not all dough has much acid, however, because yeast and bacteria compete for the same food. Dough that is risen only at a temperature favoring yeast growth (usually 75[degrees] to 90[degrees]) will be well aerated but nearly tasteless. Keeping dough at a low temperature, however-around 45[degrees] to 55[degrees]--slows yeast growth to nearly nothing and gives the bacteria a chance to feed and produce lactic and acetic acids, which make bread taste good. (Keeping dough at a temperature higher than 90[degrees] can encourage the formation of acids that don't taste good.)

Commercial-yeast manufacturers usually feed yeast molasses and nitrogen salts and then compress and extrude the yeast, to be sold either fresh, in cakes, or dried into granules that must be rehydrated before being used. Cake yeast can be successfully frozen for a year, and dried yeast refrigerated for at least a year. Most experienced bakers find no difference between breads made with cake yeast and those made with dried, despite the prejudice many have in favor of the homey-smelling, crumbly cakes.

If you don't want to make homemade starter but seek to replicate many of its advantages, you can change the instructions for breads made with commercial yeast. First, use less yeast, dried or cake, than is called for. Elizabeth David, in her classic English Bread and Yeast Cookery, gives as a rule of thumb that dried yeast is twice as strong as cake yeast. I give as a second rule of thumb that you should halve the amount of yeast called for in any recipe and lengthen the rises--although yeast is so surprisingly strong that even half the amount called for may well cause the dough to double in volume in the time specified. A period of refrigeration will help bacteria form lactic and acetic acids, according to Wulf Doerry, of the American Institute of Baking, in Manhattan, Kansas. If the period is not too long, the acids will add only interest, not a pronounced sourness. Doerry refrigerates yeast doughs for four to six hours before setting them to rise at a warm temperature favorable to yeast.

Lactic and other acids retard staling, for reasons that, like everything else about staling, are not thoroughly understood. Certainly acids inhibit the growth of mold, as does sugar, which also retains moisture. Any bread made with homemade starter will stay soft for a week or even two, but it is the high sugar content in panettone that accounts for its colossal shelf life.

Industrial producers of panettone also add monoglycerides, which are usually called emulsifiers, although in the case of panettone they are not added to emulsify--that is, to bind fat and water. Instead, they keep bread soft longer by inhibiting the formation of starch molecules into crystals, which trap moisture and make bread feel firm and dry. Warming stale bread to 140[degrees] will break crystals and release water, making the bread soft again. This trick works only once, however, since heating also drives off moisture, and once the bread cools, the crystals re-form even more tightly. Staling is most rapid at temperatures just above freezing and slowest at temperatures below, according to Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking, so don't refrigerate bread--keep it tightly wrapped at room temperature or freeze it.

Paul Bertolli gives directions for making a homemade starter in his recent Chez Panisse Cooking, a remarkably clearheaded and helpful book about many cooking techniques. Bertolli writes as if he were with you in the kitchen, and tells you what will really happen instead of what ought to happen. This is the book I recommend to anyone, beginner or not, who wants to deepen his knowledge of cooking and his confidence in cooking without a recipe.

Bertolli's chapter on bread baking, which advocates "spontaneous leavening" with homemade starter and long rises, is as useful as many whole books on the subject. He patiently guides the reader through making a potato starter. Other people use unsprayed and unsulfured grapes or raisins, or apples, to provide sugar as a quick food source; potato is particularly attractive to yeast, though, because of its starch and its soluble nitrogen compounds. If you follow Bertolli's instructions, use the water in which you boiled the potato when he initially calls for water, and have patience. It took me several brick-like batches of bread before I coaxed a starter into action. Lactic ferment is no trick, since bacteria are eager and available to form it, but yeast can be elusive. Frequent stirrings, to redistribute what yeast there is to a new food source, and frequent big doses of fresh flour, making a solid rather than a liquid starter, seem to work best.

WITH OR WITHOUT homemade starter, panettone is not easy to make, and Italians leave it to professional bakers. Even the most frequently consulted cookbook in Italy, Anna Gosetti della Salda's Ricette Regionali Italiane, says that panettone is "prepared well only industrially; we offer the home recipe for those who want to set about this ... enterprise." The best guide for Americans who wish to set about the enterprise is Carol Field's exemplary Italian Baker, full of delicious and unusual breads and cakes. I halved the yeast and doubled the rising times in Field's recipes for panettone and pandoro, with her blessing: although she takes into account impatient bakers when she writes, she favors little yeast and long rises, and believes that "bread baking is meant to work into people's lives, not to dictate them." I let both doughs rise for between twenty-four and thirty-six hours, which ripened them perfectly. They tasted rich and good, but the panettone didn't have the big holes of commercial panettone. Pandoro has a denser crumb to begin with, and mine was a complete success. Field has in any case moved beyond trying to copy the industrial versions. In a new book she is writing on Italian holiday foods and breads, to be published next year, she will include recipes for pre-industrial pandoro and panettone, both of them comparatively low and dense, and for a panettone Genovese full of nuts and liqueurs.

Field now swears by homemade starters, and in her new book she will include directions for making one and recipes for many breads that use it. She reports that although the process is initially tricky, the breads indeed not only taste better but also last much longer. And by substituting an amount of homemade starter equal to 30 or 40 percent of the flour in her old panettone recipe from The Italian Baker, she bakes a panettone that "stands as high as anything Motta could ever make."

I recommend buying some commercial panettone before opening the flour sack, so that you can see and taste what you're aiming for. Start with the plain model. You'll want to avoid the new panettones filled with shelf-stable vanilla, chocolate, or orange cream, which are clogging the market in Italy and also appearing here. Soaked with liqueur-flavored syrups and disguised with colored icings and chocolate coatings and even bright sprinkles, these panettones look like the photographer William Wegman's dog Man Ray balefully holding up a paw with polished nails or wearing a tasseled hat. A perhaps not unwelcome revision is the quiet disappearance of candied fruits from some panettones; most Italian children don't like them. Another concession to children which I find convenient is individual panettones a little bigger than cupcakes. The one trend toward something more traditional is the lower panettone that many makers are marketing, calling it the original version. Usually the dough is identical to that in high panettone, but last year Perugina began marketing an "antica ricetta" with more butter and candied fruit, also in a low shape; I object to the increased butter content (although I very much like Perugina's standard panettone), but antica ricetta has its admirers.

Buying panettone in America is a matter of what the local distributor imports. But if you find products from Bauli, Paluani, Perugina (whose American distribution is comprehensive), Le Tre Marie, Bistefani, or Battistero, try them. Dean & DeLuca imports a panettone at Christmas and a colomba at Easter made by Bonifanti, a bakery midway between artisan and industrial, and it is worth ordering. Although some manufacturers unfortunately are enamored of artificial flavorings or cut corners by using margarine, there is something to recommend most versions of panettone. A half hour in a very low oven will restore panettone to flavorful softness (a step that should be taken before serving any panettone). Take advantage of the coincidence of panettone and colomba and buy a few boxes, especially if they're on sale. Otherwise you'll regret your shortsightedness once you have begun a day with a toasted slice.

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