Saturday, December 23, 2017

My middle class food bag: Panettone

It’s nearly ten years since I first shared a recipe for panettone on this blog. I made no pretence of having tried to make it myself: the preparation is notoriously difficult and even the author of the book I copied it from might not have expected that many of her readers would attempt to do it. Besides, Italians have ready to access to relatively affordable panettoni made by pastry chefs, so there is no great need to subject yourself and your family kitchen to the rigours of the recipe, which I shared mostly by way of personal and historical background. Here’s a summary of the summary I wrote then of how the tradition began:
The exact origin of panettone is uncertain, but is generally made to coincide with the days of Ludovico il Moro, the Duke who hired Leonardo da Vinci as the city's main artist and engineer. It seems that the name is a conflation of pan del Toni, Toni's bread, and this Toni naturally we assume was a baker. That's about all we know. But we have some idea of the ritual that the cake fitted into, and it's a suggestive one.

On Christmas day, the Milanese families used to congregate – as they had for centuries – in front of a block of oak lit in the hearth over a bed of juniper. The father would pour a glass of wine, drink the first sip and pass it around for everyone to have a taste, then he would throw a coin into the fire and dispense one coin each to the others. At the end of the ritual he would be handed three panettoni (which in earlier times had been wheat loaves), and he would cut a piece off one of them, which the family would have to keep intact until the following Christmas. This special piece was attributed thaumaturgical powers, and a great misfortune awaited those who should fail to preserve it.

Over the last decade, making panettone at home seems to have become more common among Italians. The reasons could be economic but I suspect they have more to do with the greater accessibility of step-by-step recipes, including video (YouTube really has come an awfully long way), and the spread of kitchen robots and dough mixers that take care of a lot of the messy parts. (The term pastry, like the French patisserie and the Italian pasticceria, derives from making a mess.)

As a migrant, I had of course my own different sets of reasons for trying to make panettone: chief among which, the fact that the locally available commercial alternatives are either cheap and awful or very expensive and still pretty awful. About five years ago I started experimenting with different recipes until finally last year I produced a good result, but at the cost of nearly destroying our entry-level food processor. So this year we relented and bought ourselves a planetary mixer (so-called because of the dough-mixing attachments move on a orbit-like pattern). We do an awful lot of baking and we have other uses for it than a once-a-year Christmas cake, but it’s still an expensive bit of kit. Hence today’s departure from my other food bag, which is all about making things on the cheap and without the need for special equipment outside of a stove. The ingredients for panettone are very affordable but often to make cheap things you need expensive things and this is one of those times.

On to the recipe that I settled on, then. The ingredients are:
High grade flour, 750 g.
Fresh baker’s yeast, 20 g.
Malt or honey, 1 tsp.
Milk, 50 ml.
8 eggs (four whole, four yolks).
Butter, 160 g.
Sugar, 300 g.
1 vanilla pod (or 2 tsps essence).
Two oranges, one mandarin, one lemon.
Half a teaspoon of salt.
100 grams chocolate chips.
30 grams sliced almonds.
The preparation takes five stages over two and a half days (three nights), and produces two panettoni of 800 grams each, which nicely fits the paper moulds you get in New Zealand (for instance from Moore Wilson’s in Wellington). These will set you back a couple of bucks each. Or you can use two cake tins of 18 cm of diameter and 10 cm of eight. But the paper moulds are better.

Stage 1, day 1 (evening): the starter.
Dissolve 10 grams of the yeast in 50 mls of lukewarm milk with a teaspoon of malt or honey. Allow time for the yeast to froth. Mix in a bowl with 100 grams (just shy of one cup) of flour.

Cover the bowl with a tea towel and let it sit on the bench until the starter has doubled in size.

Then put in the fridge over night.

Stage 2, day 2.
Take the bowl out of the fridge and allow it return to room temperature for two hours. Place it in the bowl of the dough mixer. Add 200 grams (1.75 cups) of flour, 5 grams of yeast and 60 grams of sugar (two tablespoons). Start mixing at slow speed, adding two whole eggs. Continue mixing for ten minutes or so, then slowly incorporate 60 grams of softened butter. Mix until the dough is soft and smooth. Place it in a bowl, cover with a tea towel, allow time to double in size.

Place in the fridge overnight.

Prepare the citrus paste. I did mine with three oranges, but next time I’m going to try with two oranges, one mandarin and one lemon. Grate the lemon, set the rind aside for use in stage 3. Cut the ends of the citrus, then dice (rind and all) and add 120 grams of sugar (or four tablespoons).

Leave for 10 minutes so the sugar dissolves. Cook in a saucepan on a low flame for 30 minutes or so, then whizz with a wand mixer. You should get 150-160 grams of paste. Any more than that, and we’d have to change the amounts of the dry ingredients so don’t go overboard.

Stage 3, day 3.
Take the bowl out of the fridge and allow it return to room temperature for two hours.

Place it in the bowl of the dough mixer along with the vanilla, the lemon rind, the citrus paste, 450 grams (just shy of four cups) of flour and 5 grams of yeast. Start mixing. Add two whole eggs, four yolks, 120 grams (or four tablespoons) of sugar and slowly incorporate 80 grams of softened butter. Add the chocolate chips. Mix for ten minutes or so at average speed.

Place back in the bowl and let it rise for 2-3 hours.

Stage 4, day 3.
Take the dough out of the bowl, move it to a lightly floured surface and split it in half.

Form gently into two balls (if you want to see how to do it, this is a good video). Place in the paper mould or greased cake tins. Sprinkle the almond slices on top. Place the tins or moulds in the oven to rise overnight, uncovered, so that a little film forms on the top.

Stage 5, day 4.
The dough should have risen past the top of the moulds or tins, creating the characteristic dome shape.

Cut a cross into the top of each panettone and place 10 grams of butter in the middle of each cross. Heat the oven to 200 degrees. Cook the two panettoni separately, as follows: 200 degrees for 15 minutes, 190 degrees for 15 minutes, 180 degrees for 20 minutes. Place a bowl of water in the oven to keep the cake moist.

Voilà. This is the panettoni I made last year, without almonds (I was young and foolish back then).

Let them cool for an hour or so, then place them in a food bag with a twist top, to let the fragrance spread around. Give one to friends, eat the other. These are the ones I made this year in tins because I couldn’t find paper moulds.

They look all right. I’m a happy chap.