What Is Panettone?

Is it a cake? A bread? A loaf? Learn more about the Italian delicacy.

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Traditional Christmas Panettone cake with dried fruits on dark stone background, copy space.
Photo: wmaster890/Getty Images

When the holidays approach, our minds (and tummies) begin daydreaming about sweets: cookies, fruit cake, eggnog, holiday cherry pie — and Panettone. Say what?

Pronounced "pah-net-taw-nee," Panettone is an Italian yeast-leavened bread, usually made with raisins, candied fruit peels, almonds, and brandy. Our mouths are watering, too, so let's learn more.

Where Did Panettone Originate?

Some call it Christmas cake or sweet bread — Italians call it bread, end of story. The first record of Panettone is in an 1839 Italian-Milanese dictionary. According to Smithsonian.com, Panettone has been considered a homegrown Lombard specialty since the 19th century, when cookbooks, such as Giovanni Felice Luraschi's 1853 Nuovo cuoco milanese economico, placed the roots of the original recipe firmly in the area around Milan.

Italy produces more than 7,100 tons of Panettone each year — about ten percent of which is sold internationally, according to Smithsonian.com. The sweet bread is a source of national pride and is such a big deal that in 2005 it became subject to a formal authentication process under Italian law.

According to Italy Magazine, there is even a sweet love story behind the famous bread: "The popular legend is that of a nobleman and falconer named Ughetto, who fell in love with Adalgisa, the daughter of a baker whose business had hit upon hard times. Ughetto's family was unhappy with his choice and forbade him to marry such a lowly girl. In a bid to continue seeing his lover, Ughetto, in disguise, took a job at the bakery, where one day, he purchased butter and sugar and added it to the bakery's bread mix. Ughetto's sweet bread became popular, and the ailing bakery soon began to see better times, which pleased Adalgisa. To continue pleasing her, one day near Christmas, he added candied peel and raisins to the mix, and the popularity of his bread surpassed everything the bakery had ever produced before — in fact, it became so popular that his family relented and gave their permission for the couple to marry." Swoon.

Watch: How to Make Chef John's Panettone

What Ingredients Are in Panettone?

The recipe includes wheat, butter, eggs, sugar, raisins, and other fruits and peels. According to RevealedRome.com, wheat was scarce in the 1900s and considered a golden ingredient since every baker in Milan whipped up the sweet bread at Christmastime — no wonder there was a shortage!

Henk Drakulich, executive chef at La Brea Bakery tells Allrecipes, "It usually looks and feels like a light and fluffy bread and is considered a dessert because of its sweetness." Drakulich adds La Brea Bakery curated their Panettone using a sourdough starter. "Our consistency is bread-like and is naturally fermented, giving it more of a brioche texture. It's slightly sweet, but not too sweet and takes two full days to make."

What About Store-Bought Panettone?

Italy Magazine reports that a traditional Panettone loaf is cylindrical with a domed top. It should always be taller than wide, with a soft and airy interior beneath a dark exterior. Modern versions are now available with the fruit being replaced by chocolate; however, traditionally, it should be citrus-flavored fruit bread.

"Commercial Panettone is baked and packaged months ahead of the holiday season and is loaded with preservatives, to keep them soft until the end of the year," Drakulich says. "Most people know it less by its given name and call it "fruit cake." He says it's traditionally made with candied fruits and raisins but can also be seen with toppings and flavors common in Italian baking, such as hazelnut, chocolate, and almond. "Just like anything else, there's no substitute for homemade bread," he adds.

How to Eat Panettone

When it comes time to enjoy a slice of Panettone, Drakulich says there are many ways: "Some serve it with mascarpone cream — a soft Italian double or triple cream cheese. Others prefer it with melted chocolate sauce or toasted with Nutella, but the consensus seems to be crema inglese, a light pouring custard used as a dessert cream or sauce." If you have a slightly stale loaf, try making Panettone French Toast.

Panettone is one of the best Christmas breads from around the world, so you're sure to love it no matter how it's prepared and served. According to Italy Magazine, some people enjoy it with coffee in the morning; others prefer the holiday bread with a glass of Marsala wine or a sparkling Moscato in the evening after a meal.

Italy Magazine also notes, "The traditional way of serving Panettone is to remove the paper liner and slice the loaf with a serrated knife like a cake, to get triangular wedges.

A word of warning, though, whichever way you choose to serve your sweet bread: Italians consider it bad luck to remove the domed top and consume it on its own.

Orange and Saffron Panettone

Picture Recipe: Orange and Saffron Panettone

Great Panettone Recipes

The Allrecipes community highly rates these homemade recipes. If it's your first time, a classic option like Panettone I is a great place to start. From there, you can get more creative with these fun varieties:

Where to Buy Panettone

If you don't have the time (or energy) to make Panettone — it typically takes about two days — you can buy high-quality versions online.

You can also look for a variety of brands, starting under $10, at Amazon.com.

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