Lisa writes- On a recent lightning visit to London, I was struck by the number of panettone on display; pyramids of brightly boxed breads have colonised every festive shop window in the city. Given Britain’s current international positioning as the lumpen defeated bully of Europe, skulking on the edge of the diplomatic playground wondering why no-one wants to play anymore, there’s a touching humility to the Anglo obsession with panettone. Somehow we seem to have bought into the idea that buying (if not actually eating), dry puffy currant bread makes us more sophisticated and cosmopolitan, awash with Advent allegria, too internationally glamorous for a dreary old mince pie. Except, who wouldn’t rather eat a mince pie? The problem with panettone is that it’s really not all that nice. At best, a sub-par stollen, at worst (and we mean its desiccated cousin pandoro), panettone gives all the mouth-feel of the dust cloud at the Battle of Gaugamela. The ribboned boxes certainly look lovely, but the contents? Maybe that’s why Italians are so eager to give them away- there’s a panettone that’s been making the annual Christmas round here on Dorsoduro since about 2005-but as seasonal puddings go it’s hardly a show stopper.
The Venetian version of panettone is “focaccia Veneziana”, fugassa, and like many traditional recipes has its roots in the frugal cuisine of the lagoon. Originally an Easter recipe, it was a basic bread dough enriched with butter, eggs and sugar and flavoured with a little Marsala, vanilla, or citrus essence, then left to prove three times before being baked in a wood-fired oven to achieve the requisite lightness. It has serious historical antecedents- a mosaic in the Basilica of San Marco depicting the feast of King Herod proudly displays a fugassa on the table, but whilst the sugar might be just the thing to get up the energy for a spot of infant-massacring, it has never been a taste sensation. Fancy pasticcerie like Tonolo do more glamorous versions, with almonds and coloured sugar sequins but a big bready puff it obstinately remains.
What to do with your festive glut of panettone? Dipping thin slices in a glass of chilled dessert wine sounds all authentic, but the result quickly gets a bit care-home. Serving it after Christmas lunch with thin custard, as they do in Milan isn’t really worth the bother either. If you leave one around for long enough it could make a handy kitchen stool and a palmful soaked in vinegar isn’t bad for cleaning the windows, but what the sponge-like texture really lends itself to is French toast. Don’t tell the window dressers in Selfridges but panettone should stick to what it’s good at, a decorative rather than a gastronomic experience.
PANETTONE FRENCH TOAST
(yummy for Christmas morning breakfast, or any other day)
1 unwanted panettone
1 egg per two slices
2 tbsps milk
1/2 tsp cinnamon per two slices
1 drop vanilla essence
grated orange peel
knob of butter
Slice the panettone thickly, about 2cm. In a shallow dish or baking tray combine the eggs, milk, vanilla, cinnamon and orange zest. Soak the slices of panettone in the mixture while you get the butter hot in a frying pan, then cook (using tongs to flip it) until crisp and caramelised on both sides. As an emergency pudding, this is also great with some ice cream or fresh berries, or maybe some of those fruits in brandy that people will give one for Christmas.
A bit scathing about us Brits, Lisa. And some of us love panettone!