I’ve never had a good panettone. During my tenure as a food editor at Food & Wine, we were sent a lot of panettone around the holidays every year. I'd be super-psyched to find a large package waiting at my desk, only to feel a total sense of deflation upon seeing it was a panettone. Then I’d set the loaf out on the giveaway table, where it would sit along with a few other unwanted loaves. Clearly I'm not the only naysayer. Let’s face it: panettone is the ultimate regift.
I’ve only recently learned that the reason I dislike panettone is because I’ve only had mass-marketed ones—dry loaves studded with cloying bits of strangely colored fruit and stale nuts. The real McCoy is entirely different.
Did you know that panettone should melt in your mouth? Neither did I. It should be buttery and rich, but with a light, fluffy texture—kind of the perfect blend of brioche and cotton candy. The top should be auburn and caramelized, and it should be studded with bits of your favorite chocolate or nuts or dried fruit—whatever you like.
RELATED: Greg Wade's Panettone Recipe
Greg Wade, the head baker at Chicago’s Publican Quality Bread is the man I have to thank for opening my eyes, but he credits his passion to Philadelphia’s Marc Vetri, who sent his own delicious panettone to Wade every year, inspiring Wade to try his hand at the notoriously difficult bread. But even a highly trained and experienced baker like Wade struggled to get it just right—so much so that it took an impromptu visit from yet another chef, the renowned Italian pizzaiolo Gabriele Bonci, to tell Wade he was doing it all wrong. After the two men went through multiple tries and tweaks, Wade got it right. Now he gifts and sells the loaves every Christmas, making every single one himself.
So what is it about panettone that’s so hard? Wade explained that it’s such a rich dough, made mostly from butter and egg yolks, that you need a very strong and dry starter to support the weight of the ingredients. At the bakery, Wade uses a special sourdough starter that he feeds all year long just to make his holiday panettone. Unlike a standard sourdough starter, which is equal parts flour and water, this starter is two parts flour and one part water. From there, making the bread is a fine balance of technique and timing.
I asked Wade why he couldn’t just use a strong commercial yeast to make the panettone. He explained this: "Commercial yeast has less depth of flavor than a starter. It will make a loaf that’s texturally similar, but it just won’t have the same depth of flavor. As a baker, I don’t go for ease, I go for a special unique product.”
For the home baker, who doesn’t likely have this unique starter sitting in the kitchen year-round, Wade created a recipe for a biga (a.k.a. poolish, aka pre-fermentation) made with bread flour, warm water and active dry yeast. This takes a few hours to come together, but is well worth the time. When the biga gets added to the initial dough, it will be firm and strong enough to add the lift that will ultimately make your panettone into that fluffy goodness.
Part of my distaste for panettone has to do with the inclusions—those chewy little bits of weird fruit especially. I asked Wade about the inclusions. The standard ones are candied orange peel, rum-soaked raisins, hazelnuts, chocolate chips and pearl sugar. But you can really add whatever you want. For me, I’d drop the orange peel and raisins and go all chocolate and nut.
You will need a panettone mold, and Wade suggests getting one on Amazon from Novacart. Once you’ve made the panettone and cooled it fully, wrap it nicely in cellophane and a bow, making sure to do your best to not expose it to air. Wade says it should keep for a week, but he says once you taste it, it won’t last a day. Now that I’ve had the perfect panettone, I know that he’s right. I won’t regifting this baby.
RELATED: Greg Wade's Panettone Recipe
If you’re really not up for making panettone from scratch, here are some excellent recipes that use store-bought panettone: Ken Oringer’s panettone bread pudding is festive and decadent. And this Toasted Panettone With Orange Mascarpone Cream recipe from Michele Scicolone is a quick and elegant way to dress up toasted slices of panettone.