Making it a December to remember - Il pane de Tonio or the adventure of the ellusive Panettone
Every Christmas we have this thing with trying to emulate traditional pastry from different countries, or cultures. We did start by making Bolo Rei - King Cake, literally translated, the portuguese traditional Christmas cake - and once my husband nailed it, we kept that as our personal Christmas tradition, making a few Bolos Rei that we would also gift friends and family with. It took a while for our cakes to look as good as the store bought one, and a while for the taste and the dough to be right.
Then one year we were kind of tired of the same old, same old Bolo Rei, and it was a year when my husband was particularly overworked and with little time to spare, so when he came to his Christmas off term, he really wanted to take it slow and rest. So we decided to not bake, that year, instead we bought a Bolo Rei and a Panettone. We had been buying Panettones over Christmas for plenty of years, as we both simply adore that cake, light and airy and buttery, with the hint of orange and vanilla and filled with raisins. It kind of stuck to the back of our minds that one day we would try to bake our own Panettone.
The year after that we settled for a fruit cake, called an English Cake here in Portugal, instead of the Bolo Rei because I was in no mood for that one. It is a cake jam packed with fruits, very crumbly and sweet, a beauty to sit on any table, really. And it's not a hard one to make, nor time consuming, and we had just had our son, we wanted something simple and quick. It's hard to extricate yourself from a new baby and the sweet things he will grace you with, and we kind of wanted to enjoy the kid fully, as those first few months seem to fly by!
But the year after that one, we were kind of on fire. We had just discovered the Danish cinnamon rolls, and we were eager to try making cinnamon rolls with dried fruit inside, so we just jumped right in. I believe we spent a couple of Christmases serving that one at our table, such was the success amongst us! It is still one of my favourite treats, though it's been a while since my husband last baked us some. It is hard work and time consuming, but not much more that all the rest we tend to get ourselves into the rest of the year. It just hasn't happened, lately, I guess.
Then last year I was feeling a bit nostalgic for Christmas in Manchester and the mince pies I had gobbled there - don't get me started on the pork pies, though, I still dream of those! - and I managed to tackle my husband into wanting to bake mince pies. We turned to Nigella Lawson for loosely basing our own recipe in hers, and let me tell you that these were simply the best mince pies I have ever tried in my whole life. I actually had to force myself away from them, or I would have eaten the whole batch! They really were that good! And I kind of wish we were baking some again this year.
But the truth is that for years we have been thinking about the Panettone, and a desire to bake our own, all homemade, has grown mostly in my husband who uses baking as therapy for stress, I think. So I dove into the internet, and did my research, trying to find recipes for Panettone, and studying them through and through, to come out with one I would really like. Finally I was ready to share a couple with my hubby. I had turned to one of my favourite celebrity bakers for inspiration, but my husband ended up taking his cue from my Larousse Gastronomic Dictionary. Sadly, it did not work.
The dough was tough, and it didn't rise. The cake, after it had baked, looked compacted and smelled too much of yeast. All the orange seemed lost, and there was no hint of vanilla, it was crumbly and it was dry and I really did not like it at all. We kind of figured we had bitten more than we can chew, even though my husband had turned to Larousse's - best book ever, even if their Panettone was not up to par!! - for a recipe on candied orange peel, and that one was a major success!! Really, you have to try it, it's the best candied peel I ever had!
So I was actually kind of scared we would not have Panettone, and we had already planned to add miniature ones to our Christmas gifts hampers, which kind of stressed me out a lot. Again I went back to my research for a good Panettone recipe, spent hours online reading through all I could find, and I even learned that as legend has it, this nobleman fell in love with the daughter of a local baker, and in order to prove himself to the man, he disguised himself as a commoner, asked for a job as his apprentice, and created the Panettone in honour of the baker, whose name was Tonio. See, it was the Pane de Tonio, and seemingly a huge success that brought fame and fortune to Tonio, a good marriage to his daughter, and happiness to the nobleman who had fallen for her.
In the midst of my own research, I came across Silvia Colocca's blog, and as I sat down to read her recipe, I was sold. That was the one, that was to be the one recipe we would base our Panettone on. She had me on the use of a biga, you see, the starter dough. Because to my ludicrous mind, it made no sense at all that a bread that was to be light and fluffy and airy should not start with... a starter dough! So it was to her recipe that I veered my husband's eye, and he agreed with me, it seemed like a really good recipe. We simply adapted the dry fruits we were to use, we had golden sultanas and cranberries - trust me on this one, those are a hit in the Panettone, just ask my son!! - and we had our own homemade candied orange peel.
This is a very time consuming recipe, to be sure. My husband started at about nine a.m. and these babies weren't ready before nine p.m.! But the scent invading our home was to die for, the whole day long, and now that we have tried one - we had to make sure they were edible, come on!! - I can tell you this is one great recipe. It's a lot less sweeter that store bought Panettone and it does not taste of fake vanilla like most do, also the orange hints are very subtle but present. It is a fragrant cake, not as airy as the ones you can buy, not as light either, but it looks gorgeous - if you're into rustic like I am! We got one large Panettone and seven miniature ones that are going into the hampers! And this is certainly a cake to repeat, not only over Christmas!