The traditional Milanese luxury bread made for the holidays must be prepared with uttermost attention and American chefs are up for the challenge to make the perfect panettone following not only the original recipe, but also the equally important, original process.

The earliest mentions of the panettone date back to the Middle Ages, it was only during the 20th century that panettone reached its current popularity throughout Italy and the world. However, the same industrialized bread-making process that made the panettone so widely, was the one to change its nature. In fact, this process could not possibly compare with the devotion that pastry chefs dedicate to create the mouthwatering masterpiece, for which each tiny detail is essential: curing the dough – which is acidic; similar to sourdough; extreme proofing – which takes several days to give the distinctive fluffy characteristics; the temperature of the butter – just a couple of degrees too warm and the dough turns to mush; the quantity of the butter – almost incredible; the cooking time – few minutes too short and the dough slips right out of its mold deflating; the ph of the yeast – a little too fermented and it becomes too acidic to work.

Whether the chef goes for a traditional (with candied orange zest and raisins), or a more original version (with lemon zest, chocolate, or other delicacies), the dough is described as greatly sensitive and demanding, following its own unique logic and schedule, for which it cannot be rushed or made to wait. The perfect panettone, if stored properly, after several months can still be pulled apart with almost no effort into long, feathery strands that dissolve in the mouth. For pastry chefs there seem to be no bread that is more difficult to make, or more rewarding, to get right. For this reason American chefs decide each year to embark on the challenging quest to make the perfect traditional panettone, often offered also in innovative versions.

In New York, Jim Lahey, who started selling panettone at Sullivan Street Bakery in 1996, says: “Panettone is this high art for the world of bread because there’s an enormous amount of technique in making it.” This year he created a panettone full of rum-plumped raisins and candied citron, or dark chocolate and dried sour cherries. While in  Manhattan, at Superiority Burger, it is possible to find the panettone made by Rick Easton with: his ‘lievito madre’ (the Italian-style starter that he is been caring for for several years), butter from Normandy (or his own cultured butter), and raisins (he made from organic wine grapes). He makes both traditional citrus peel and raisin panettone, as well as panettone with pieces of candied pumpkin, or candied quince and almonds.

From San Francisco, Roy Shvartzapel, sells his masterpieces through his mail-order panettone business ‘From Roy’. Shvartzapel learned the art of making panettone from the Italian baker Iginio Massari, near Milan, and began by making small batches. Now he has partnered with a commercial bakery and moved into his partner’s 40,000 square-foot commissary kitchen to increase his production for both his mail-order business and the Williams Sonoma stores in the Bay Area, where it is possible to buy his panettone.

Ilona Catani Scarlett

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