To make panettone — traditional panettone, coaxed from a stiff, naturally leavened starter — is to embark on a long, expensive and unpredictable journey, risking disaster at every turn.
Roy Shvartzapel, a baker in San Francisco, refers to this Italian bread as “the Mount Everest of baking.”
“You’d be hard pressed to find a more challenging dough,” said Shvartzapel, 40, who owns the mail-order panettone business From Roy.
Panettone dough is wildly sensitive, demanding and occasionally infuriating, following its own unique logic and schedule. Built up in stages, it can’t be rushed or made to wait. It requires an investment of ingredients, a deep understanding of fermentation and attention to pH levels, along with constant attention.
Give it all that, and a panettone can still go wrong. Bakers from Los Gatos, California, to Pittsburgh say that’s exactly why they’re so obsessed with the high-maintenance dough: No bread is more difficult, or more rewarding, to get right.
A great panettone can be pulled apart with almost no effort into so many long, diaphanous strands that dissolve on the tongue. It is sweet, but not intensely so: more weightless than cake, with the softest, roundest, most delicate tang of sourdough. Stored properly, it will keep that way for a month.
Jim Lahey started selling panettone at Sullivan Street Bakery in New York in 1996. This year’s batch is full of rum-plumped raisins and candied citron, or dark chocolate and dried sour cherries. “Panettone is this high art for the world of bread,” Lahey said, “because there’s an enormous amount of technique in making it.”
He includes a recipe for it in his book, “The Sullivan Street Bakery Cookbook,” written with Maya Joseph. Adapted for the home baker, the recipe includes less sugar than the version sold at the bakery, which means it doesn’t require a complex panettone-specific starter. “If made correctly, if all the conditions are correct post-baking, I once had a panettone last eight months without molding or spoilage,” Lahey said.
Rick Easton, 41, who used to run Bread and Salt, a bakery in Pittsburgh, calls panettone “a crazy magic trick.” He will sell his version this December at Superiority Burger in Manhattan.
To make it, Easton buys butter from Normandy, or prepares his own cultured butter, and tracks down organic wine grapes to make his own raisins. He has cared for his lievito madre, the Italian-style starter he uses to make the bread, for several years.
Most of Easton’s panettone will be jeweled with citrus peel and homemade raisins, but a few will be more experimental, shot through with pieces of candied pumpkin, or candied quince and almonds.
“Here is this thing that’s incredibly rich, decadent, indulgent, but it’s impossibly light,” he said. “That’s the greatest thing about a panettone, the thing you’re reaching for as a baker: that texture.”
Panettone has its roots as a regional specialty in Milan, a luxury bread made for the holidays with an obsessive level of attention to technique and ingredients. Though it may date back, in an earlier incarnation, to the Middle Ages, it wasn’t until the 20th century that panettone became so widely consumed across the rest of Italy, then internationally.
“The industrialization of bread-making made panettone available to a much broader spectrum of the population,” Easton said. It fundamentally changed the bread, too.
The same boxed, mass-produced versions that made panettone famous, and that took it from being a rare luxury item to one anyone could buy, gave it a reputation as nothing more than a parched, heavily perfumed sponge.
Shvartzapel thought of panettone that way until about a decade ago, when he tasted one made in the artisanal Italian tradition, in Paris. “It had this melting, cotton-candy type quality,” he recalled. “It was a texture I’d never experienced in a baked good before.”
Shvartzapel later learned how to achieve that flossy quality from Italian baker Iginio Massari, outside Milan.
Shvartzapel began by making small batches of panettone, sometimes using other people’s kitchens, wrapping up the loaves at his apartment in Healdsburg, California, and loading them into the trunk of his car to sell locally. Back then, Shvartzapel was still testing his theory that Americans would pay $50 for his panettone. (They would.)
“Outside of the United States, panettone is a multibillion-dollar market,” he said. “Why not here?”
As the market for luxury panettone grows, Shvartzapel has teamed up with the founders of La Boulangerie, a commercial bakery brand with cafes in San Francisco. This past month, he moved his production into La Boulangerie’s 40,000-square-foot commissary kitchen in South San Francisco, where he says he can produce up to 10 times more bread for his mail-order business. And his panettone will soon be available at Williams Sonoma stores in the Bay Area.
Avery Ruzicka, 33, who owns Manresa Bread in Los Gatos and Los Altos, is one of many American bakers who became intrigued by traditional panettone after trying Shvartzapel’s.
“I’ve never been to Italy,” she said, “but I learned on my feet.”
This year, baking it for the first time, Ruzicka studied recipes and referred to the photos that bakers shared on Instagram of their unctuous, seething doughs. She sent Shvartzapel, a friend, the occasional message to help troubleshoot.
“If you mess up a panettone, it’s gone,” she said. “You can’t save it. It just all goes in the garbage.” And Ruzicka found, as all bakers do, that there is a near-infinite number of ways to mess it up.
The starter, the emulsion, the fermentation, the timing, the temperature. Even the mixing, which sounded straightforward enough, had its pitfalls. (To avoid excess friction, and keep the temperature low, Shvartzapel uses a diving-arm mixer imported from Italy, which can mimic the gentleness of hand-mixing.)
Ruzicka once used butter that was a couple of degrees too warm, and the dough turned to mush. She pulled a panettone out of the oven a few minutes early, and it slipped right out of its mold, deflating. One time, just a smidgen over-fermented, a whole batch collapsed because the yeast had grown too acidic.
“Bread making is always mystical and exciting, but panettone more so than anything else,” she said.
With some practice, Ruzicka got it just right: Proofed almost to its breaking point, emulsified with an exorbitant amount of fat, the wet, shiny, comically stretchy dough vaulted up into glorious golden domes, as it had done for so many bakers before her, creating a magnificent structure that would reveal itself after the bread was cooled, upside down, to preserve its fragile, chaotic matrix of bubbles.
Ruzicka will ship a few hundred loaves of her panettone, flecked with dark chocolate and candied orange peel, via her bakery’s website, but only through December.
“It melts in your mouth, and it’s suddenly gone,” she said. “And then you want to eat more.”
Panettone Bread Pudding
Yield: 8 servings
Time: 10 minutes plus 1 hour baking
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
6 to 8 slices (550 grams) panettone
1/3 cup (67 grams) sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
4 cups whole milk
Confectioners’ sugar, to garnish
1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees and butter a deep baking dish that will fit all the bread slices in a single layer, overlapping slightly, about 9 by 5 inches. Place the sliced panettone on a sheet pan and lightly toast it in the oven so that it’s still flexible, but dry to the touch, about 10 minutes. Arrange toast in the baking dish.
2. In a large mixing bowl, whisk the eggs with the sugar and salt, then add the milk and whisk until smooth. Pour through a fine-mesh strainer over the panettone, allowing the excess mixture to fill up the pan. Cover tightly with aluminum foil and bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until the bread has soaked up all the custard and puffed up, and the custard is no longer runny. Allow to cool at least 30 minutes before serving, then use a fine-mesh sieve to dust all over with confectioners’ sugar and serve.