Panettone: The Italian Christmas Cake From Milan

Panettone - Italian Christmas Cake
Panettone - Italian Christmas Cake. Anthony Masterson/Getty Images
  • 74 mins
  • Prep: 10 mins,
  • Cook: 64 mins
  • Yield: 2 large panettoni (serves 10-14)
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A panettone (literally meaning "big loaf") is a tall, dome-shaped cake risen with yeast. It has a somewhat light and airy texture but a rich and buttery taste, and it's not very sweet. It's a typical Christmas-time cake all around Italy and in Italian communities around the world, but it originates in the northern Italian town of Milan. It traditionally contains raisins and candied fruit (orange and citron zest) and is topped with crisp pearl sugar. More modern versions might substitute the candied fruit with chocolate chips. 

Most Italians do not make panettone at home, for the simple reason that it is a rather lengthy and complicated process, requiring multiple risings. Usually, it is bought from a local baker or in a supermarket.

But if you are feeling ambitious and would like to make your own, the following is a rather classic recipe.

What You'll Need

  • For the First Rising:
  • 3/8 cup/90 g unsalted butter
  • 5/8 cup/110 g sugar
  • 4/5 cup/200 ml warm water
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine salt
  • 5 ounces/140 g​ fresh yeast cake (or​ biga; ask your baker for this)
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 3 1/3 cups/400 g flour
  • For the Second Rising:
  • 2 1/3 cups/280 g flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • 5/8 cup/110 g unsalted butter
  • 1/2 pound/200 g raisins
  • 1/2 cup/100 g granulated sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine salt
  • A little flour, for dusting the work surface and
  • Optional: pan​ pearl sugar (for decoration)
  • Optional: 1 cup candied orange and/or lemon peel, diced

How to Make It

  1. The afternoon before you plan to bake the panettone, begin by cutting the butter into a small pot and melting it over a very low flame or a double boiler; keep it warm enough to remain melted. Dissolve the sugar in about 2/5 cup (100 ml) of warm water.
  2. Put the melted butter, salt, and yeast cake in a mixing bowl (or better yet, the bowl of an electric mixer) and mix well. Next, add the yolks and sugar-water, mixing briskly. Sift in the flour, continuing to mix. If the dough is too stiff, add a little more water. Continue to mix briskly for about 25 minutes, throwing the dough against the sides of the bowl, until it has become smooth, velvety, and full of air bubbles. At this point, transfer the dough to a lightly floured bowl large enough for it to triple in volume, cover it with a heavy cloth, and keep it in a warm (85 F, 30 C) place for about 10 hours.
  1. Wash the raisins, drain them well, and set them on a cloth to dry. 
  2. When the first rising time is up, turn the dough out onto your work surface (or return it to the mixing bowl) and work in the flour, vanilla, yolks, and honey. Mix briskly for about a half hour, then work in all but 2 tablespoons of the butter, which you will have melted as before, and a little water (just enough to make an elastic dough), to which you have added a pinch of salt. Continue working the dough until it becomes shiny and dry, and at this point add the fruit and zest, working the dough to distribute it evenly. At this point you can divide the dough into pieces of the size you want; if you want to make your panettone by weight, use a scale and figure that they'll decrease in weight by 10% during baking.
  3. Lightly grease your hands with the butter and round the balls of dough, then put them on a board or plate and let them rise in a warm place for about a half hour. At this point, lightly butter your hands again and put the panettoni in panettone molds (or put rings of stiff paper around their bases). Return them to their board and put them in a warm (68-80 F, 20-30 C, depending upon the season), humid spot to rise for about 6 hours.
  4. Heat your oven to 380 F (190 C). Cut an x into the top of each panettone and put 2 tablespoons (30 g) unsalted butter over the cuts. Put the panettoni in the oven, and after 4 minutes remove them and quickly push down on the corners produced by the cuts. Return them to the oven and bake them until a skewer inserted into the middle comes out dry about 1 hour.
  1. When chefs remove their panettoni from the oven, they put them upside down in special panettone holders to keep their flanks from collapsing. In a home situation, this is not practical, and you'll simply have to cool your panettoni on a rack.
  2. Some tips: Work the dough, if possible, with a standing dough mixer of the kind also used for making bread dough. Beating times with a mixer are on the order of 20 minutes, whereas hand-beating will require about 50.
  3. The room where the panettone is made must be warm, about 72 degrees F (22 C). The flour should also be warm, about 68 F (20 C); what's used is 00 grade (very fine all-purpose flour) and extremely dry. If it has been wet where you are, you may want to dry your flour in an oven, as it absorbs moisture unless it is tightly sealed. The water used should be warm, about 76 F (24 C).
  4. Don't forget a pinch of salt, because it stimulates rising.
  5. Commercial bakers use a sourdough starter (i.e., wild yeast). Home recipes call for baker's yeast.
  6. The baking time will depend on the size of the panettone. Assuming an oven temperature of 400 F (200 C), half an hour will be sufficient for small to medium-sized panettoni, whereas larger ones will require considerably more. Home ovens are best suited to small-medium-sized panettoni.
  7. If you want the surface of the panettone to be shiny, slip a bowl of water into the oven when the panettone is half-baked to raise the humidity.
  8. Commercially sold panettoni are taller than they are broad. To obtain this effect at home, you'll have to put a ring of heavily buttered thick paper around the dough when you put it in the oven or use a panettone mold . If you instead want a panettone that's wider than it is high, like a normal bread loaf, simply put the dough in the oven. If you choose this course, you will want to put the dough on a pizza stone or similar.