It isn’t Christmas without Panettone. It’s just…not. This isn’t an exaggeration or a fabrication for me. As far as I can tell, the 25th will still arrive, but it just won’t feel the same unless there’s a beautiful golden brown, fruit-filled, Panettone waiting, soft and sweet in the kitchen. To illustrate my point: In a home video of Christmas 1996, my dad asks 5-year-old Ray why he has to have Panettone (and steamed milk—kid “cappuccinos”) on Christmas, and Ray stares at him for a moment, then says plainly, “It’s the law,” and walks away. Conversation. Over.
While we generally try to keep things relatively simple and quick when it comes to recipes, some things are just too worth the extra time. Cakes, slow-cooked dishes, breads, meals where everything—including the ingredients that don’t have to be homemade, like the pasta itself—is made in your own kitchen are all things worth more than a few of hours of work, especially when the occasion calls for it. Sometimes that means a big celebration and sometimes it just means that you want that deep satisfaction of having spent awhile creating something incredible to share with friends and family (or maybe even just yourself).
Lou is, understandably, not always a fan of the long-winded recipe. And usually, I agree. But then, I’ll read a crazy recipe I have to make, and… it’s happening. But ever since I can remember, Lou has had the uncanny ability to sense nearly the exact moment when I get one of these ideas, and suddenly she’s in kitchen doorway, studying me with a worried squint. I sound like I’m exaggerating her Mom Detection Skills. Scout’s honor: I’m not.
On account of too little time, too little space, other things to be done in this short life, and oh, maybe just plain good sense, Lou will usually try to talk me out of any recipe that will take too long, or, most especially, create a particularly impressive mess (a thing at which I will admit I am pretty good, not to brag). The unfortunate thing about kitchen messes and me is that I’m usually not doing my best work if I haven’t made a thorough and complete mess of our counters. Other people can cook tidily. Lou is (usually) one of them. But while I’ve gotten better at wrangling the situation—it’s usually a lower case “s” instead of a capital one these days—I’m still not quite there…
It’s not that Lou doesn’t like a cooking marathon—she certainly has her own exceptions to the Quick Is Best rule. And it’s not like she never likes the end result of whatever experiment I’m taking on (a fact that is usually central to my debate-and-switch tactic of getting her to concede the kitchen). But the particular difference in frequency of exceptions between the two of us is what’s lead to my sneaking into the kitchen at all hours, trying to cook both silently (one metal bowl clang and I’m busted) and at warp speed. Inevitably, I get caught, which leads to noisier, but no less speedy, cooking. But if I’ve timed it right, by the time the debate is over, so is the cooking. Another not-usually successful tactic: casually appearing to make one dish while actually making another—this again requires extra-fast ingredient mixing and lots of tall things on the counter to conceal bowls of cream, nearly-finished homemade butter, and rising dough. This one is not always successful and has the added bummer of creating twice as many dirty dishes.
I figured all of this out at a pretty early age, before I was even allowed to use the stove. A five-year-old intent on making her parents breakfast in bed, I would sneak downstairs to mix together whatever I could get my hands on in the kitchen using my little red chair as a step stool and call it, “I made breakfast, Ma!” I had weird kid-priorities.
My argument is: making something that doesn’t need to be made, or making something special at a time when no one expects it, is just too satisfying, too grin-inducing, too wonderful a thing to discount.
Panettone is maybe the most perfect example of this.
Tonight, we want to share a recipe with you that we love so completely, it should be the kind of thing we guard against all pleas for sharing. But we can’t take full credit—the amazing Jim Lahey started us off with the inspiration. It isn’t complicated, but it does take some waiting. Trust us, it’s worth it.
Panettone may or may not be a household word for you, but in our home, it’s Holiday 101: A traditional Italian Christmas bread that’s lightly sweet—think almost like challah with fruit added. Panettone is Christmas. And New Year’s. And sometimes, Thanksgiving, too. Every year, it’s part of our too-long (not possible) weekend breakfasts, our standing up in the kitchen snacks, our eating over the counter as the phone rings for phone conversations with friends that we don’t talk to often enough, our late-night desserts by Christmas tree light. Our family eats and gives out so many of these every year that I’m not positive we’re not responsible for most of the Panettone business in the United States. One my most favorite traditions was always Ray and I going to the store with our dad, the three of us carrying as many Panettone boxes as arms could manage, then piling into the car, Christmas music blasting (truly blasting) as we went door to door. Ray and I would alternately sprint from the car to drop these beautiful breads at the doors of friends and race back to the car, unseen, which was always important somehow to me. I loved to think of it waiting for whoever opened the door first. Christmas magic.
It’s true that we’ve often bought our Panettone and that every one of them was delicious. But a few years ago, after wanting to try it for some time, I decided to finally try to make my own. And as you might have guessed, this meant a few things:
1. Hiding Panettone papers in my room. (Doesn’t every girl do this?)
2. Setting my alarm for 5am Christmas morning, then going back to sleep and waking up a few more times for the different dough risings during different recipe tests.
3. Trying to figure out how to keep our squeaky wooden steps and our old stand mixer full of dough from waking up Lou, who is a light sleeper extraordinaire, the way only moms and Jedis can be.
And honestly, that early morning baking is one of my favorite kitchen memories. Working silently in the morning light, making something that’s been on our table during so many other favorite moments. And when the mixing and kneading and scraping and rising were all done, I couldn’t believe that I had made a Panettone myself—and that it was nearly perfect. The only thing missing was Frank sitting across the table from us with a grin and a mouth full of Panettone, eyebrows waggling.
When I cook, I almost always feel like there’s some little change I’d make or a variation I’d like to try, but not here. This recipe is it. The incredible pull of yeast dough—totally unique in its airy chew—is one of the most amazing textures. You can’t get it without yeast. Making bread—and having it come out beautifully—always takes a little faith your ingredients, your abilities, and your recipe. Panettone is no exception, but the payoff is in some ways more unbelievable. The dough is like softly spun gold and just as precious after all the love and waiting that goes into it. Add tartly sweet fresh orange zest, dried apricots, cherries, golden raisins, vanilla seeds, and, the secret ingredient that puts it over the top, chestnuts, dotting the pale golden bread and you’ve got quite a thing to behold when all is done. There are different dried fruit combinations for Panettone, but to me, this one is absolutely perfect. I’ve looked all over, but I’ve never been able to find this exact flavoring in a store-bought Panettone. That alone is worth the baking.
Sure, you can buy Panettone and it will be good—some of them are fantastic. But once you make your own, it’s going to be hard to go back. It’s a real labor of love, but that’s the draw. And if you’ve never had Panettone before, this is a very good place to start.
So from our home to yours, here is maybe our favorite family tradition and certainly one of the most important foods to deck our table, year after year. We hope you’ll share it with your family and friends this holiday season and that you might make as many good memories around it as we have. Thank you so much for reading and cooking along with us this year! We can’t wait to keep going in 2015.
Lee & Lou
* * * *
Makes one large Panettone
Adapted from Jim Lahey’s Panettone recipe.
Notes: Don’t be tempted, as I have been on more than one occasion when I forget why not, to soak the cherries and apricots along with the raisins. They will take up too much water and your Panettone will be heavy and darkly colored instead of that beautiful pale gold.
– A large paper Panettone mold
– A stand mixer, paddle attachment on
– 3/4 cup golden raisins
– 3/4 cup chestnuts, chopped (We like to cut them in quarters.)
– 3/4 cup dried sour cherries
– 1/2 cup dried California apricots, chopped (So preferable to Turkish apricots here—the texture is softer and the color and flavor are brighter. Again, we like to cut them in quarters)
– 2 tbs dark rum + enough boiling water to just cover the raisins
– 3 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
– 2/3 cup granulated sugar
– 1/2 tsp kosher salt
– 1 packet or 2 1/4 tsp active dry yeast + a very small pinch of sugar
– Zest of 1 large orange
– Seeds of 1 vanilla bean scraped out
– 3 large eggs at room temperature
– 1 1/2 tbs honey
– 2/3 cup warm water (about 75°-80° F at the time you’re using it)
– 10 1/2 tbs unsalted softened butter
– 1 tbs melted unsalted melted butter
– 1/2 tbs unsalted cold butter
* In a bowl tightly covered with plastic wrap, soak the raisins in the rum and boiling water. We like to set them to soak the night before we start making the Panettone at the same time when we pull out the butter to soften overnight. That way, we don’t have to wait for either in the morning. If you forget or don’t have time, just make sure to soak the rains for at least an hour.
* On the morning you’ll be making the dough (the morning before you want to eat Panettone), start working about 12-15 hours before you want to go to sleep that night. You don’t have to get too specific, just approximate.
* Gently mix together the 2/3 cup of warm water and packet of yeast in a small bowl or cup, along with a tiny pinch of sugar, and set aside to proof. This will take about 10 minutes. You’ll know your yeast is ready to go when there’s some foam on top. (Here’s more detailed info on proofing yeast!) While you’re waiting, get your other ingredients together, chop your fruit.
* In the bowl of your stand mixer, add the flour, salt, sugar, lemon or orange zest and vanilla bean seeds. Mix together.
* In another bowl, whisk the eggs and honey together.
* With the mixer going at low speed, slowly add the water + yeast mixture and the egg + honey mixture to the bowl of flour, etc. Up the speed to medium and mix until everything is combined. (Don’t let it go too long.)
* Now you’re going to add the 10 1/2 tbs of softened butter, 1 tablespoon (and the last 1/2 tablespoon) at a time with the mixer running at medium speed. Make sure to let each piece incorporate into the dough thoroughly before adding the next piece. Once you’ve added all of it, turn up the speed a notch and let the mixer run for 10 minutes, kneading the dough until it is nice and smooth and stretchy.
* Drain the raisins thoroughly. (We like to let them sit in a sieve or colander over a bowl while the dough is being kneaded.) Toss out the liquid and stop the mixer. Add the raisins, cherries, apricots, and chestnuts, plus the 1 tbs of melted butter to the dough. Stir everything in with a long wooden spoon or heavy-duty spatula. Gently mix until the fruit is pretty evenly distributed.
* Cover the dough in the same bowl with plastic wrap and leave in a spot in your home that’s not too cold or drafty for—now, don’t get worried because you don’t have to do anything to the Panettone during this time—about 12 to 15 hours until it has doubled (or a bit more than doubled) in size. (Note: If it’s really warm outside or in your house, it may take about half that time, but we’ve literally never had this happen.) If you’ve started in the morning, the dough should be ready for the next step right before you go to bed. This is the ideal timing.
* 12-15 hours later… Knead the dough in the mixer for about 10 minutes using the paddle attachment on your mixer again. (We find the dough hook to be fairly useless except very occasionally—like when making pizza dough.) You’ll know it’s done when the dough has reached the “windowpane stage.” Basically, when you pull the dough, it should be stretchy enough that it gets translucent and thin, but still holds together (even if it only holds for a moment, which is pretty much what you want since we’re making something softer than, say, a loaf of sourdough bread).
* Add the dough (it will be sticky and very soft) into the Panettone paper mold, even it out so it’s pretty uniform in height and covers the bottom. Drape a warm, damp dish towel over it and let it proof for about 6-8 hours. It’s especially important for this rising, that the dough be somewhere warm. It’s ready for the oven when it has doubled in size and is soft and puffy. Now, you can head to bed. Because our house tends to be on the chillier side in the winter, we’ve never had an issue with getting a full 7 or 8 hours of sleep while the dough is proofing. Put the dough somewhere not drafty, but not super toasty, and you’ll be fine, too. At this point, it’s bed time: say goodnight, Gracie.
* The next morning… Your Panettone is ready to bake. The dough should have risen to about the same height as the mold or a bit above. Put your oven rack in the second slot from the bottom (and if you have a second rack, put it below so the Panettone has plenty of room.) Preheat your oven to 350 °F. Take a look before putting the Panettone in the oven and if it looks a little dry, sprinkle with just a bit of water.
* Place 1/2 tbs of cold butter on the top of the Panettone right in the center.
* Bake for about an hour to an hour and 15 minutes until the top is a deep golden brown and a skewer comes out clean. If it’s not quite done at an hour, check after 5-minute increments.
* Traditionally, when the Panettone is done, you hang it upside down to cool by putting two long skewers parallel through the parchment paper and bread, about 2 inches from the bottom of the mold. Hang the bread upside down in a large pot to cool, setting the skewers across the top to suspend the Panettone, for about 30 minutes so it’s still warm (or an hour so it totally cools if you won’t be eating it right away). This will make the Panettone airier and less cakey—otherwise the Panettone will steam a bit as it cools. But we like to eat our Panettone warm, so if we’re in a hurry, we’ll just let it cool for 20 minutes or so and dig in.
© 2014 Lee and Lou Cook. All Rights Reserved.