Panettone and the Italian Christmas Tradition
Updated: Nov 11
Panettone. The “big bread.” (Because this is what panettone just means, and yet and indeed it is The Big Thing when it comes to celebrating Christmas in Italy.) The most popular outcome of Italian pasticceria since its invention. Despite the challenging competition of other various sweets, panettone has become essentially a synonym of Christmas, and for me, as an expat who has been living in this amazing country for eight years, synonym of all things Italian.
After all, I am of Italian origins and there is no other bodily sense more than taste and smell that is so close to the heart and soul, and make us remember who we are, where we come from, what our roots are. My ancestors were from Sicily and Abruzzo, and although I have been born and raised in the States, I will always remember Christmas as the great moment when you gather around the table with your family and prepare, taste, smell, eat the best food. No matter what the tradition is.
What are the traditional foods for you at Christmas time? Me, I could still remember so vividly my mom baking star cookies with a redhot in the middle, the traditional baked ham with cloves, creamed spinach. Wow, waiting this I just realize how much I miss creamed spinach now! And, on the table, there was always a fruit cake. Can’t say I was a big fan of fruit cake, but it was tradition.
Now I live in Italy and they have panettone. The whole family, often extended to orbiting significant ones, aunts and uncles, second, third and fourth degree cousins, selected friends, gather around hungry and thirsty. Then, at the end of a Pantagruelian lunch or dinner, grandma solemnly places in the middle of the table this sort of giant muffin, made of the puffiest, most tender dough ever, filled with a constellation of raisins and candied fruit. It’s panettone. It might or might not be your fruitcake, but this is the king of all Christmas sweets.
There are many legends how panettone was invented, going back to the 1600’s in Milan. It is said that a baker in Milan wanted to make something special while making his traditional break but given the vast poverty at the time had only a few simple ingredients and to his traditional recipe added some candied fruit and raisins and panettone was born. The suffix “one” at the end of an Italian word tends to signify “big”. So pane, which means bread became ” big bread” or panettone in Milanese dialect, and now it is tradition. And there will not be a Christmas table in Italy without a panettone.
One of the most recent competitors of panettone is another Italian delicacy: pandoro. Pandoro literally means Golden Bread. A sort of panettone, but even softer and possibly more buttery. Pandoro contains no raisins or candied fruit, but it is traditionally covered with an abundant snowfall of icing sugar, which reminds kids and adults of the typical Italian paesaggio outside. It is a pleasure eating a slice of your preferred Christmas pastry in front of a crackling fireplace, while outside snows like there is no office to go back to.
Sometimes in life you are given two options, a clear cut choice: Messi or Ronaldo? Beach or Mountain? Wine or beer? Liberal or conservative? Evolution or creation? Plato or Aristotle? Vatican or Colosseum? For Italians the choice at the dinner table on Christmas day is: panettone or pandoro? But there is no doubt panettone represents tradition, and pandoro is just a sweet attempt to overthrow the rule and authority of panettone.
Have you ever been to Italy and eaten panettone? If you are traveling to Italy during this coming festivities don’t forget to have a taste of one and the other, and make up your mind… pardon, your belly! Let us know what you find out. But if you want to make sure not to miss anything, consider a food tour with a professional gastronomist and food expert, Adriano Vecchiarelli, who is leading Roma Experience’s best food experiences. Whether or not you choose a guided food itinerary make sure you try panettone and pandoro. What’s your favorite?
Me, I choose panettone. But between us, I have a special sacrilegious way to approach it. Don’t tell anyone. I personally like to toast it and spread nutella or vanilla ice cream on its top. I try not to be spotted by Italians when I do. They can be touchy when it comes to food heresy. But being an American, I think vanilla ice cream is a must on top of – well – anything, really. Be it a mum’s fruit cake or Italian panettone.
One thing, at last. I would love to learn how to make the perfect one. Has anyone ever made panettone? Can you tell us you favorite recipe? But whether you buy it, steal it or bake it, it doesn’t matter. Just make sure you eat it! And if you really want to try an amazing one, check out the Igino Massari‘s panettone.
Happy holidays and panettone for all!