Italian's passion for sweet bread during the Christmas season is unsurpassed. With the festive season almost upon us, Essteele identifies some of the classic treats that have transcended generations and can easily be found in many Italian bakeries around the world.
Often compared to fruit cake, Panettone is a fruit-filled sweet bread from Milan and a beloved Christmas staple. The rich buttery cake takes several hours to make and often kicks off Christmas Day served with Moscato or prosecco. There are several romantic versions of its origins including the tale of an apprentice who was in love with the beautiful young daughter of a Milanese baker named Toni. In an attempt to win over the baker, the young man created a special sweet bread filled with raisins and candied fruits. The bread was a huge hit with the locals and Toni’s bakery became famous for the “pan de Toni” or Toni’s bread. The story goes that Toni went on to become a wealthy man and, needless to say, allowed the young man to marry his daughter.
Another famous sweet Christmas bread, Pandoro is traditionally a star-shaped cake that is dusted with powdered sugar. Bright yellow, the cake originated in Verona but is popular all over Italy. According to cooking veteran Antonia Polese, the name “Pandoro“ probably derives from the ancient golden bread of the “Serenissima“, the Venetian republic. Once the aristocracy used to cover their bread with golden leaves to make it attractive. After Domenico Melegatti began experimenting, a legend says that one of his assistants, experimenting with an eight-point star-shaped mould, exclaimed ecstatically: “This bread is made of gold!!“
Originating in 16th century Genoa, this typical Ligurian sweet bread comprises two varieties of pandolce alla genovese, “basso,“ which means low and is crumbly like a scone, and “alto“ which means high and is the yeasted bread. Rich in tradition, the youngest member of the household is charged with carrying the pandolce adorned with a branch of bay laurel to the table and the oldest member of the family carves up portions after all have kissed the cake. The initial slice was always saved for the first beggar who would come to the door.
From Rome and the Lazio region, pangiallo is a golden yellow bread studded with nuts, raisins, spices, and candied fruit and again is steeped in ancient history. Originating in the imperial age, no ingredient was spared with all the dried fruits, honey, nuts and spices the baker could muster.