Once an exotic Christmas treat found only in Italian delis, panettone is now a seasonal staple – so hardly a fad. In Italy, it is a time-honoured Christmas favourite. Panettone – possibly derived from pane di Tonio (Tony’s bread) – is said to be the result of panic when a medieval court chef (the eponymous Tony) had nothing to serve for dessert, so he invented this deceptively light, thrice-risen dough laced with abundant egg yolk, even more butter, marsala-soaked sultanas and peel.
To this day, no Italian home is complete without a golden crown of panettone on the go throughout the festive period, usually enjoyed au naturelle – with coffee, maybe something stronger – or perhaps as the key ingredient in an indulgent bread pudding, or Antonio Carluccio’s pasticchio di Babbo Natale (Santa Claus’s pudding), a simple but delicious concoction of panettone, vin santo, peel and cream.
In the UK, panettone sales have never been healthier, with supermarkets reporting a rise year-on-year, while Selfridges says it outsold Christmas pudding by two to one in 2017. And so, Christmas being an annual orgy of gluttony and commercial opportunity, it follows that anyone who is anyone in retail has remixed the classic panettone into a probably-wrong-but-somehow-alluring duet with another, unnecessary flavour profile. Witness Heston for Waitrose’s black forest panettone, Sainsbury’s prosecco panettone, Tesco’s orange liqueur and chocolate panettone … all of which make me feel as I did when Blue covered Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word: yes, I sang along, probably quite enthusiastically, but was it Elton?
And then there’s Perbellini’s chocolate and peanut panettone, stocked exclusively by Selfridges, and made in collaboration with Reese’s, of Reese’s Pieces – yes, those divisive peanut-chocolate morsels. Now, loving a good classic panettone as I do, and being in the anti-Reese’s Pieces camp as I am, I approached this combination with some trepidation. I was pleasantly surprised by the flavours – in fact, I thought it could have taken more of the chocolate and peanut butter (come on, it’s Christmas) – but was more ambivalent about the texture, which was ever so slightly on the dry side.
Having spent three days last winter in Turin – the very heart of panettone-land, and in the season for it, too – I have little time for anything hinting at a dry crumb. The inside of a panettone should be like a moist, golden, fruit-studded pillow, rippable from the round in elegant strands resembling angels’ wings. It seems to me that texture is panettone’s most vital quality, more important even than flavour. Style over substance here is a glaring error.
When choosing a panettone, it’s definitely worth keeping things a little more conventional and spending a bit more; both the traditional or chocolate numbers from Lina Stores are winners. For anyone not wanting to choose between Elton John and Blue, enliven your classic panettone with some faddy lashings of Selfridges’ Christmas condiments – strawberry and Marc de Champagne jam, perhaps, festive marmalade (with gold leaf, no less), and eggnog curd.
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