Why you should care

Because your next dessert could be your dinner.

Ever tried a cake of chocolate, aubergines and red onions? Stop groaning. It’s about time you tackled some stereotypes.

Culinary traditions die hard, but gourmet recipes evolve into innovative bittersweet concoctions that tantalize taste buds. This is what’s happening to Italy’s traditional Christmas cake; panettone is undergoing a metamorphosis. Pastry stars across the boot are performing miracles: They’re reinventing the classical recipe, making it a year-round delicacy and extending it beyond its original boundaries — i.e., the northern city of Milan, where it was born.

The story of panettone is a romantic one. As most supreme creations, it all began as a mistake. Folklore has it that one cold Christmas Eve back in the 1500s, at the castle of a powerful king, a baker’s boy named Tony was preparing bread for dinner. Despite the ongoing celebrations, he was sad and distracted as his girlfriend had just dumped him, so in an involuntary gesture he dropped eggs, sugar and raisins into the dough. The bread, instead of being salty, turned out to be a sweet, round loaf, but it was already late and he had no time to make another one. In a desperate move, he served it; lucky for him, the emperor loved it. And that’s how Tony’s bread — pan di Toni in Italian — was invented.

For centuries, panettone was traditionally baked and eaten only at Christmas. It was embossed with a festive cross motif and its historical recipe was sacred and untouchable, protected by Milan’s Chamber of Commerce. The base ingredients had to be just raisins, candied citrus peel and butter. But change can be powerful, especially in gastronomy.

Today panettone is being reinvented “in an infinite number of ways” by pastry chefs across the peninsula, from the Alps to the Mediterranean, says Salvatore Farina, founder of Ducezio, Sicily’s pastry chefs’ lobby. These Southern food artists have modeled the Milanese-bred pie into the local cake buccellato, adding dried figs and almonds. It’s a matter of mixing regional pride and stylish transgression, explains world-famous pastry star Nicola Fiasconaro. “Sicily boasts a 200-year pastry-making tradition that blends in Arab, Phoenician and Mediterranean traits. I have created a panettone made of manna, a precious ash-tree resin exclusive of a tiny patch of land where I come from.” Fiasconaro, the first to create these new twists, even came up with a version with candied red chicory.

The craziest experimental twists of other cooks feature passito wine, olives, truffles, pepperoni, capers, foie gras, rice, apricots and ginger, cheese, balsamic vinegar and chili peppers. Chef Pietro Macellaro from Salerno, near Naples, adds aubergines, extra virgin olive oil and kiwis. Pastry chefs from Calabria, Italy’s bottom tip, have added chili peppers and premium red onions of Tropea, which grow in the region, while colleagues in Rome have adapted the cake to a classical dish from the capital: pears and sheep pecorino cheese.

Not all, though, are ready to dare. Many have settled on tamer recipes, adding just chocolate, marrons glacés (candied chestnuts), pine nuts, nuts, pineapple and tropical fruit. No complaints here.

THE “REAL” PANETTONE RECIPE BY TANCREDI ALEMAGNA OF T’A MILANO PASTRY BOUTIQUE

  • FIRST DOUGH’S INGREDIENTS
  • 60 g yeast refreshed 4 consecutive times
  • 75 g granulated sugar
  • 90 g water
  • 60 g egg yolks
  • 85 g butter
  • 240 g plain flour
  • 50 g lecithin
  • SECOND DOUGH’S INGREDIENTS
  • All the first dough
  • 60 g plain flour
  • aromatic mix (prepared with 30 g of orange honey, the inside of a vanilla bean and 50 grams of mix aromatic honey)
  • 4 g salt
  • 150 g cream
  • 60 g granulated sugar
  • 80 g yolks
  • 90 g butter
  • 40 g water
  • 120 g raisins
  • 60 g candied orange cubes
  • 30 g candied citron cubes

FIRST DOUGH:

Dissolve sugar in water and add the lecithin; add flour and leave everything in place for about half an hour. Combine the yeast in pieces and egg yolks; make the dough smooth and proceed with the remaining yolks. Knead until everything is evenly compacted. Add the soft butter a bit at a time, leaving it to absorb very well before adding more. Add the salt, and continue to knead until a compact dough is made. To verify that the dough is ready, pull one side to form a thin veil: If the cake doesn’t break, proceed.

Overturn the dough on the work surface and leave it to raise up to triple its volume. It will take about 14 hours at a temperature of 24° C. Subsequently put in the fridge for an hour.

SECOND DOUGH:

Put the first dough in the kneading with flour; slowly add egg yolks, sugar, cream, oil and soft butter; this time do it gradually. Finally add the salt and the various flavors (honey, candied fruit and raisins). Take the dough, make another two or three movements manually and turn it over; let stand for 30 minutes. Repeat this movement twice and let stand for 10 minutes.

Transfer the dough into a big round cake stamp and make leaven until it comes to a 1.5 cm from the edge. At this point, cut a cross on the top surface, brush it with butter and bake in oven at 175° C for about 1 hour.

Remove from the oven and place upside down.

When the panettone cake has cooled, place it in a transparent bag and wait at least a couple of days before devouring it.

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