Friday, 9 November 2012

Patience Is A Virtue But Eating Panettone Really Isn’t

Being a Flavours Italophile, I have noticed Panettone appearing in the shops; a sure sign the season has changed and we are marching towards Christmas. I like to see the towers of this beautifully packaged Italian product and find they call to me each time I pass with my trolley. Buying a few of these ‘bread loaves’ has become a ritual and it’s strange how we all seem to love the idea of creating new ones especially with others on Flavours cooking holidays.

I guess the human race has always had a desire to eat comforting sweet things and as far back as the Romans, a Panettone-type confection existed, albeit in a slightly different form. Leavened bread with honey was the precursor and utilises some of the basic ingredients of the western diet.

Leavened bread with dried fruit proved long enough to achieve noble proportions has cropped up in paintings going back as far as Breughel in the 16th century, so I have simply stepped on the bandwagon that has been trundling slowly through Europe for many centuries. 117 million of these highly packaged delights are sold every year so it is big business.

Milan is Panettone’s spiritual home, but interestingly this luxury bread or ‘Pane di Tono’ which appears to be first inextricably linked to the festive season, was coined by an 18th century artists and illuminator, Pietro Verri. You would think Milan would be the centre of consumption but you would be wrong; more Panettones are consumed in the south of Italy.

Its influence actually stretches far beyond Europe and Italy these days with South America taking a huge interest in this light, fruity bread cake. In fact, one might go on to suggest it is ousting the traditional Portuguese Bolo Rei (King Cake) which was taken to Brazil by the Portuguese colonists. This cake is similar in density to a Danish pastry ring and is fruit filled, decorated with glace fruits and appears in every conceivable shop, supermarket and pastelaria from November onwards.

Choosing a Panettone causes much consternation in my household as it is such a disappointment to unwrap the sexy cellophane to discover a somehow waxy, yet dry, slightly acidic piece of bread which can only be utilised for toast. This is such a crime because making Panettone is a time consuming business and no one should be permitted to adulterate this tasty bread.

You may be unaware the proving process is long; the dough needs to be cured in a similar vein to sourdough; some bakers suggest it should almost fizz before it is ready. The days given to Panettone’s birthing are key to its texture and the addition of good quality raisins; candied fruits and lemon zest augment its distinctive flavour. Of course a glass of Amaretto or Moscatel or even a steaming glass of high quality hot chocolate will make the Panettone eating experience, one to savour. Save me!

It’s important to cut the tower of light bread vertically. If you are feeling particularly decadent, probably post-Moscatel, you can always try serving it with crema di mascarpone, knocked up quickly with marscapone, some type of candied or dry fruit and liqueur. Look, Christmas is about keeping out the miseries of the winter weather and the short days; it isn’t about diets!

You are unlikely to embark on making Panettone at home but if you like a challenge, listen up! The first stage involves mixing the flour, yeast, eggs, salt and milk until they become cohesive dough, then kneading for five to ten minutes, with a dough hook is easiest. It is then covered and left to prove for around an hour or so, depending on the kitchen temperature. Obviously like all thing Italian, the slower the better - ooh!

Egg yolks, sugar, vanilla essence and butter and even orange flower water are incorporated but take care as this can be overkill as orange zest is there too. The dough is mixed and left to prove again for another hour and that’s when the dough begins to fizz. Finally some raisins and candied orange peel are dropped in carefully. The reason? You don’t want to break open the raisins otherwise their sugars leach out into the dough and will actually adulterate the flavour.

The dough is split into small cylindrical paper cases and left to prove until twice the height. Egg wash, scatter flaked almonds and bake. Yum. So, if you feel inspired try this recipe which comes from Lucy Lord writing for London’s Time Out and remember, patience is a virtue but eating Panettone really isn’t, but making it might well be!

Panettone Milano (makes 35)

1.2kg plain flour
1tbsp salt
40g dry yeast
360ml milk
6 whole eggs
6 egg yolks
half tsp vanilla essence
250g caster sugar
500g unsalted butter, at room temp
500g raisins
350g orange (or mixed) peel

1 Preheat oven to 180C. Mix together the flour, salt, yeast, milk and eggs. When thoroughly combined, knead on a floured surface for five to ten minutes. Sprinkle with flour and leave, covered, in a warm place for 30 mins.

2 Add the egg yolks, vanilla essence and sugar, and mix to a soft dough. Work in the butter and beat for five to eight minutes until smooth and elastic. Place in a lightly oiled bowl, cover and leave to rise in a slightly warm place for about an hour until doubles in size.

3 Knock back the dough and gently knead in the peel and raisins. Cover and leave to prove for half an hour, then break off 120-130g pieces and roll into balls. Put the balls into mini Panettone cases and leave to prove for 20 minutes. Brush with egg wash, sprinkle with flaked almonds and put into the oven to bake for 25 minutes.

Flavours offer Italian cooking holidays where you can find inspiration in Sicily, Tuscany, Puglia and Amalfi.

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