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Panettone is a Christmas and New Year’s tradition in Italian households. Panettone (pah∙neh∙TOH∙neh) literally means big loaf of bread. Panetto is a small loaf of bread and the suffix ‘one’ makes it a big bread.  The origins of panettone probably date back to the Ancient Romans, who made a leavened bread with honey and raisins.  Bread has always been a symbol of family ties, as in ‘breaking bread’ together. In the middle ages, a sweet leavened bread with dried fruit was incised with the sign of the cross before baking as a blessing for the new year, then distributed to the family.  A slice was also saved for the next year.  In the 1400’s it became custom to make il pane di Natale-Christmas bread, with white flour and costly, hard to find ingredients that made it special.  This was called pane di lusso-luxurious bread, which in Milanese dialect was ‘pan del ton’.  Modern panettone originated 500 years ago in Milano during the reign of Ludovico Sforza (1481-1499). There are several legends regarding its origin.

In the most romanticized legend, Ughetto, son of nobleman Giacometto degli Antellari fell in love with the beautiful Adalgisa. To be near his innamorata, he pretended to be an apprentice baker for her father Antonio, who was called ‘Toni’.  Desperate to impress Toni, Ughetto created a rich bread with yeast, butter, eggs, sugar and canditi- candied cedro and orange peel. The bread was an overwhelming success and people came from all over Milano to taste this ‘pane di toni’ – Toni’s bread.  Duchess Beatrice d’Este, wife of Ludovico Sforza, was so taken with the love story that created this bread that she convinced Giacometto to let his son marry the baker’s daughter.

Another version takes place in Ludovico’s kitchens. There was a custom to prepare a particular dolce for guests on Christmas Eve. Unfortunately, it was burnt, sending the cook into desperation.  One of the kitchen workers, a boy named Antonio, offered the bread he was making for himself using the dough left over the day before from the original dolce. It was a domed sweet bread with grapes.  When the invited guests asked what this delicious dolce was called, the cook replied ‘pan del toni’.

The final legend is the simplest, but probably the most believable.  It involves Suor Ughetta, a young nun in a very poor convent in Milano. To make Christmas Eve more festive, she made a dolce for her fellow sisters with butter, sugar, eggs, canditi and uvette.  Uvetta means raisin in Italiano, and in dialetto Milanese it is pronounced ‘ughetta‘. Whichever legend we choose to believe, today panettone is synonymous with Natale for everyone of Italian origin.

In 1919, baker Angelo Motta opened his first pasticceria in Milano. He let his panettone rise 3 times, to the familiar cupola or dome shape on a cylinder that we see today. Previously the shape of panettone was more schiacciata-lower and more compact. Motta also invented the paper wrap and box. A few years later, he had a competitor in Milano, Gioacchino Alemagna. Their competition led to industrialized production of panettone, with factories replacing the small pasticcerie. They also began exporting all over the world. Today both Motta and Alemagna are owned by Bauli, based in Verona. Last year almost 120 million panettoni were produced in Italia!

I will be enjoying my panettone and prosecco for Capodanno-New Year’s eve, and making panettone French toast with ricotta if there is any left over! I have been experimenting with making my own panettone since last December.  My next post is a recipe for Panettone fatto in casa!  Read about other dolci di Natale in this post. Buon appetito, Cristina