Perfecting panettone for the holidays: yes, you can

Christmas baking traditions die hard. Take my annual December output of stollen, that German holiday bread full of walnuts and raisins and drizzled with a confectioners' sugar glaze.

After nearly 30 years of dragging home pounds of nuts and golden raisins from the Strip, bags of powdered sugar from the grocery and staying up late waiting for the stollens to finally be done, I needed something new to bake for the holidays, and discovered it in the Italian tradition from Milan -- panettone.

When I acquired two new bread books this year -- "The Italian Baker (Revised)" by Carol Field and Ed Anderson (Ten Speed Press, $35) and "The Fundamental Techniques of Classic Bread Baking" by the French Culinary Institute (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $65) -- I found the inspiration to refine my original recipe and turn out exceptional panettoni, fresher and more sophisticated than those imported from Italy in cardboard boxes.

My initial recipe was created by Jim Lahey for the December 2008 issue of the late and still-mourned Gourmet magazine. At the time, Mr. Lahey, owner of The Sullivan St. Bakery, was the darling of New York food writers. Gourmet embraced his celebrity as well and reproduced his panettone.

(Mr. Lahey was an evangelist in the "no-knead, bread in a pot" fad, which aroused my suspicions, especially when I discovered his "no-knead" technique required kneading and that his bakery is no longer nowhere near Sullivan Street in the Lower Village.)

The gimmick to his panettone was the use of a tiny ( 1/2 teaspoon) amount of yeast and exceptionally long (12 to 15 hours) rising or initial fermentation stage. The Gourmet recipe directed you to place the dough in a cold oven for that time, assuming, I guess, that we all had more than one oven and could afford to tie one up for that long.

I found that the effects of this technique resulted in a flavorful, but dense bread that rose only slightly even after 15 hours and needed almost two hours to bake.

I changed the recipe by using bread flour instead of all-purpose and 1 1/2 teaspoons of SAF Gold instant yeast that works best with sweet doughs. It's called "osmotolerant." I kneaded the dough in a stand mixer for 15 minutes using a dough hook to develop more gluten.

The changes improved the bread considerably. It was easier to handle, rose faster without imprisonment in a cold oven and baked in just over an hour. The panettone was airy, moist and redolent of vanilla.

The recent baking books led to more upgrades in the panettone production. Their recipes were more complex and challenging than Mr. Lahey's recipe, and the breads were worth the work, both head and shoulders above the Lahey product even after my improvements.

These recipes are not for casual bakers; they are advised to use the Lahey recipe with my refinements. The recipes also call for panettone baking molds made of lined paper. I found mine at Pennsylvania Macaroni in the area where bread is sold.

Traditional panettone is a yeast bread full of eggs, sugar and butter -- really a brioche with dried fruit and citrus flavoring. It has a long shelf life. Ms. Field says the Italians save a few slices from Christmas to eat on Feb. 3, the feast day of St. Biagio, the protector of the throat.

The Italians consume more than 100 million panettoni, adds Ms. Field, who has traced its origins to the 15th century when a poor baker named Antonio created the bread, hence the name, pan di Tonio. Apocrophal, maybe, but panettone is a Christmas standard no matter how it earned its name.

I baked four different panettoni this month in search of the best version, then offered samples to three tasters, two of whom are experienced bakers and the third who is an eager consumer of their baked goods. The winner was the recipe from the French Culinary Institute, with Ms. Field's a close second.

My fourth -- from the Wild Yeast blog -- was a serious effort that required two days in the making. Like the French Culinary Institute's, it calls for a mature "levain" or naturally created leavener that takes a week or so to make and regular "feedings" of flour and water to maintain.

For you to try, if you're up for its three stages, I offer "The Italian Baker" version online below. It calls for two 6-inch-by-4-inch panettone molds (the ones at Penn Mac are slightly bigger) or two 2-lb pound coffee cans 6 inches high.


PG tested

Ms. Field's recipe takes three stages:

The sponge, a first dough and a final dough.

It takes seven eggs, three sticks of butter, a cup of sugar and tablespoons of honey and produces two loaves using barely a cup more flour than Mr. Lahey's one loaf. Like the Lahey bread, Ms. Field uses all-purpose flour and, like the Lahey, it's improved using bread flour.

It calls for two 6-by-4-inch panettone molds (the ones at Penn Mac are slightly bigger) or two 2-pound coffee cans 6 inches high.

-- Bob Hoover

For the sponge
  • 2 1/4 teaspoons (1 package, 0.2 ounce or 7 grams) active dry yeast
  • 1/3 cup (2.8 ounces or 80 grams) warm water
  • 1/2 cup (2.5 ounces or 70 grams) unbleached bread flour

Stir yeast into water in a small bowl; let stand till creamy. Stir in flour, cover with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled at room temperature, about 20 to 30 minutes.

For the first dough
  • 2 1/4 teaspoons (one package, 0.2 ounce or 7 grams) active dry yeast
  • 3 tablespoons (1.5 ounces or 45 grams) warm water
  • 2 large eggs at room temperature
  • 1 1/4 cups (6.3 ounces or 180 grams) unbleached bread flour
  • 1/4 cup (1.8 ounces or 50 grams) granulated sugar
  • Stick (4 ounces or 115 grams) unsalted butter at room temperature

Put water into mixing bowl of stand mixer fitted with paddle, stir in yeast and let stand till creamy. Add sponge, eggs, flour and sugar and mix till blended. Add the butter in small pieces and mix until dough is smooth and consistent, about 3 minutes. Cover and stand at room temperature. Dough should double in 1 to 1 1/2 hours.

For the second dough
  • 2 large eggs
  • 3 large egg yolks
  • 3/4 cup (5.3 ounces or 150 grams) granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons (1.5 ounces or 42 grams) honey
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons (0.2 ounces or 6 grams) vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon (0.2 ounces or 5 grams) salt
  • 2 sticks (8 ounces or 225 grams) unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 3 cups (14.7 ounces or 420 grams) unbleached bread flour plus 3/4 cup (3.5 ounces or 100 grams) or so for kneading

Add eggs, yolks, sugar, honey, vanilla extract and salt to first dough and mix thoroughly with paddle. Add butter in small pieces and mix until smooth. Add flour and mix till smooth. (Dough should resemble cookie dough.)

Switch to dough hook and knead for 2 minutes or until dough is smooth. Flour counter and finish kneading dough on counter by hand, using as little extra flour as possible, until dough is smoother, but still slightly sticky.

For the first rise

Place dough in lightly oiled bowl and turn to coat with oil. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and wait until dough rises to triple in bulk, 2 1/2 to 4 hours. Dough can also rise overnight in cool (65 degree) room or refrigerator overnight.

For the filling
  • 12/3 cups (8.8 ounces or 250 grams) golden raisins
  • 1/2 cup (2.7 ounces or 75 grams) chopped candied citron
  • 1/2 cup (2.7 ounces or 75 grams) chopped candied orange peel.
  • Grated zest of 1 orange and 1 lemon
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons (0.6 ounce or 18 to 26 grams) unbleached flour

Soak raisins in cold water for at least 4 hours. Drain and pat dry. Combine with fruits and zest and dust with flour.

Divide dough into 2 parts and pat each piece into an oval shape. Sprinkle each piece with one-quarter of filling mixture and roll into a log shape. Flatten to create as much dough surface as possible. Divide remaining filling between the 2 pieces and roll up again.

Form each piece into a ball and drop into oiled panettone molds or coffee cans lined with parchment paper on bottom. Cover for 2 hours or until dough has doubled. With single-edge razor or sharp serrated knife, cut crosses into both breads. Drop a small chunk of unsalted butter in the cut.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees for at least 30 minutes to an hour with rack in middle of oven. When hot, place loaves on rack and bake for 10 minutes, then reduce heat to 375 degrees and bake for 10 minutes. Reduce temperature to 350 degrees, bake for 30 minutes, then with a skewer or thin knife, test the bread for doneness.

To best cool the panettones in paper molds, when baked, take 2 metal skewers and pass them through both molds near the bottom. Hang the panettones upside down over a pan and allow to cool for at least 4 hours.

Bob Hoover: First Published December 22, 2011 5:00 AM


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