Having baked so many darn things the past eleven years, I confess I get a little cynical about preparations that seem to closely resemble other things. I do a sort of lazy man’s mental math…let’s see…brioche + sugar + candied fruit = yeah, I think I know what that’s all about. I think that’s why I’ve put off making my own panettone for so long. That and the fact that I’ve tasted so many of the impressively-tall-yet-disappointingly-dry versions. You start to wonder what all the fuss is about. Having finally made my own, now I know — and this stuff is good.
That’s “panettone” with two t’s. Profuse apologies to my few — and getting fewer — Italian readers. Panettone has near-sacred status among the Italian-Americans I know. These are people who know how to eat — but who are frequently disappointed by the panettone they find in most stores, both here and in Italy where (they say) mass-produced versions have largely replaced the artisanal kind. Even so, they fear making their own because of the time involved.
It’s true that some panettone recipes have more assembly steps than an Imaginarium Pirate Island Playset (forgive me, Christmas is coming), but between the quick-rise, easy-bake iterations and the slow-rising, multi-day religious ritual versions there is a happy medium. Peter Reinhart strikes it in his masterful book, The Bread Baker’s Apprentice. The recipe is classic Reinhart: starter-based but with a commercial yeast “spike” that delivers the best of both worlds: a voluminous light crumb and a deep, satisfying flavor.