Buon Natale. The traditional Italian sweet bread panettone is taking over: temptingly colourful boxes and tins pile up in stores for the pre-Christmas rush, and not just in the Italian delis like Limoncello or Carluccio's; its distinctive aromas (a blend of citrus, spice, eggs, vanilla, peel) conjure up the holiday mood, especially if the bread is still warm.
So, sliding some remaining panettone slices into the toaster early this raw mid-January day brings memories of morning lie-ins and Christmas brunches wafting back. And it will continue to do so over the coming months as we bake and eat this "festive" bread outside its proper season.
It has a reputation for being difficult to make: the dough is so rich and heavy that it sometimes fails to rise fully - and a dry, airy crumb is the essence of a successful panettone. So I cheat. I order a couple "extras" from the Bakery Bits website. Firstly waxed paper moulds of various sizes, specially designed for panettone, solve the problem of finding the right baking container. Secondly, fiori di sicilia essence is suffused with all the spicy flavours and flowery scents of panettone - a couple of drops transforms the loaves; and it lightens the dough, so helping the rise. I also add some dried yeast to my sourdough starter to help get that lift.
Stage One (start the night before you wish to bake)
240g dried fruit and peel
Mix fruit, peel and brandy in a bowl and soak overnight. Choose the mix of fruit that suits your taste (I use dried apricots, golden raisins and mixed peel for the flavour and golden colour I want). However, it is important to dice the fruit to match the size of the pieces of peel.
100g plain white flour
100g sourdough starter (I use a 50% water 50% starter)
7g dried yeast
a pinch of sugar
Mix the ingredients together and leave in a warm place to develop for about an hour.
1 tsp vanilla essence (or seeds from half a vanilla pod)
4 drops fiori di sicilia
2 large eggs
4 egg yolks
1/2 tsp salt
Blend together the butter and sugar until smooth. Add the rest of the ingredients and continue to blend until smooth and well mixed.
500g plain white flour
In a large bowl, mix together the flour, the eggy mix from stage three, the yeast mixture from stage two and the fruit (drained) from stage one. Once mixed, turn out onto a floured surface, and knead for fifteen minutes, until the dough is less sticky. Place the dough in an oiled bowl and put in a warm place for three hours to rise.
Divide the dough in half. Knead briefly and place each half in a 154m / 750g panettone mould. Cover with cling film and leave in a warm place to rise. This may take some time (approx 3 hours) but the dough should double in size. Give it more time if the rise is slow, as this is critical to the outcome. The dough will still be some way from the top of the mould, but will rise further when in the oven.
An hour before you wish to bake the panettone, heat the oven to 200C degrees. Bake for 20 mins, then place circles of greaseproof paper on top of the loaves and bake for a further 45 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean.
Remove the loaves and brush the surface with molten butter or a sugar/water glaze.Place the loaves on a rack to cool - keep in the moulds.
Once cold, wrap the loaves in plastic bags to keep fresh.
Cut into wedges and sprinkle with icing sugar before eating. The flavour is enhanced if the bread is slightly warmed. Or slice and toast.
And it's not just for Christmas! A toasted slice is so warming on a cold January morning; or February, or March....