The history of panettone

From three large leaves to the panettone

Does “Panettone” come from Pan de Toni?

According to tradition, Toni, a humble kitchen assistant in the service of Ludovico il Moro, is credited with inventing one of Italy’s most iconic sweets. On Christmas Eve, the Sforza family’s chef accidentally burned the cake intended for the holiday feast. In a creative solution, Toni decided to use the mother yeast he had saved for his own Christmas celebration. He carefully kneaded it with flour, eggs, sugar, raisins, and candied fruit until he achieved a soft and leavened dough. The outcome was a tremendous success, leading Ludovico il Moro to christen it “Pan de Toni” in honor of its creator.

The primacy of Toni’s contribution is not so clear-cut.

Other legends attribute the invention to other creative pastry such as Ughetto degli Atellani or Sister Ughetta. These legends, as the one of Toni, date back to end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. A curiosity: Ughetto and Ughetta are names quite similar to the word designating raisins in Milanese dialect: “ughett”.

The true origin of the Panettone

The true origin of the cake can be found in the Middle Ages when people used to celebrate Christmas with a bread richer than the one ate every day. A manuscript of late fifteenth-century written by George Valagussa, tutor for Sforza family, reports the tradition of celebrating the so-called “rito del ciocco”. On Christmas Eve a large piece of wood was placed in the fireplace and three wheat bread were served on the table. Wheat was a precious ingredient at that time. The head of the family served a slice to all guests, and a slice was kept aside for the following year as sign of continuity.

A purely Christmas tradition

Another historical tradition supports origin of the cake from the Christmas wheat bread. Up to 1395 all bakeries in Milan (except for Rosti bakery, supplier of the richest families) were allowed to bake wheat bread just for Christmas in order to give it as a gift to their customers. The tradition of eating wheat bread at Christmas is therefore quite ancient. It is not surprising to find this tradition in many other Italian and European towns. Anyway, in Milan the tradition brought to invention of panettone.

The parts made clear

Certain phases of this long evolution are documented. In 1606, according to the first Italian-Milanese dictionary (Varon milanes), the “Panaton de Danedaa” was a big bread, like the one baked at Christmas. Francesco Cherubini gives us a richer description in his famous Milanese-Italian dictionary in five volumes (printed between 1839 and 1856, the third M-Q volume is dated 1841). The Panattón or Panatton de Natal was a kind of wheat bread enriched with butter, eggs, sugar and raisins (ughett). It was made all the year round in small size (Panattonin) and in big size just for Christmas. In the countryside Panatton was made with corn flour and enriched with apple slices and grapes.

Yeast was introduced

The first reference to yeast is dated 1853 and can be found in “Il nuovo cuoco Milanese economico”, cookbook written by Giovanni Felice Luraschi. Candied fruit (citron) are cited in “Trattato di cucina, pasticceria moderna” (1854) written by Giovanni Vialardi, chef of Savoy family. The presence of the cake in a book written in Piedmont in the nineteenth century proves that it is well known since antiquity in the region chosen by Flamigni as site for its production plant.

Panettone shapes

Panettone is available in two shapes: low and tall. Low panettone was born first, but it evolved thanks to the tall one.

The original low panettone

At the beginning Panettone was a kind of bread. Until the beginning of the twentieth century it was baked without using any molds [click here to get an idea of its appearance]. This was possible because total amount of fats contained in it had nothing to do with the 6 to 700 grams of butter per 1 kilo of flour and with the quantity of egg yolks used nowadays by pastry chefs. Today it is not possible to produce Panettone letting it leaven and baking it without using paper baking cups. The result would be a flat cake and not a panettone.

The tall panettone

Angelo Motta is the one who changed things. In the twenties he had to produce two hundred pieces of kulic for the Russian community in Milan. This job influenced him and he decided to enrich his panettone recipe with fats. He therefore decided to wrap it with straw paper in order to obtain a taller product. It is the birth of the mushroom shaped panettone which became the classic shape of industrial version of this product.

The modern low panettone

Pastry shops in Milan continued over the years to produce panettone in the low version. At first no paper baking cups were used. Once recipe was enriched in fats, use of paper baking cups became necessary. Today the two formats coexist and it is difficult to establish which one is the most widespread.

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