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Panettone: Six things you didn't know about Italy's most famous Christmas cake

The Local Italy
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Panettone: Six things you didn't know about Italy's most famous Christmas cake
How much do you know about the panettone? Photo by kate rumyantseva on Unsplash

The panettone is Italy's most popular Christmas cake (closely followed by its rival pandoro). But how much do you know about the festive treat?


The panettone, a brioche-like domed cake typically studded with dried or candied fruit that's said to have originated in Milan, is the king of Christmas desserts in Italy.

According to a 2018 survey, 50 percent of Italian men selected the panettone as their favourite Christmas cake, while 33 percent said they preferred its closest rival pandoro, and 17 went for a local alternative.

Interestingly, the vote was much closer among women, with 43 percent choosing panettone, 41 percent pandoro, and 16 percent local specialities.

READ ALSO: Panettone or pandoro: Which is the best Italian Christmas cake?

It's possible, then, that the panettone's popularity could be eclipsed at some point in the future, especially if women have anything to say about it - but for now the traditional sweetbread's status as the ultimate Christmas treat seems fairly secure.

With that in mind, it's worth familiarising yourself with a few pieces of trivia to impress your friends and family when the cake gets whipped out for dessert this Christmas.

1. It's traditional for people in Milan to save a slice of the Christmas cake until February 3rd, the Feast of San Biagio, to ward off sore throats and other ailments.

San Biagio was a doctor and bishop who lived between the 3rd and 4th centuries. He eventually was beheaded by the Roman empire for his faith, but not before he saved a young man who was choking from a bone stuck in his throat by giving him a piece of bread that dislodged it - which is where the tradition comes from.

2. It has to be cooled upside-down. Panettone's delicate and fluffy texture means the cake would collapse in on itself if left to its own devices.


As soon as it's taken out of the oven, a panettone must be hung by its base from skewers for several hours so the starch sets in the right formation. 

READ ALSO: Five Italian Christmas desserts you should try

A panettone must be hung upside-down with skewers for several hours to avoid collapsing on itself. Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP.

3. There are at least three legends about its origins, including that a kitchen boy named Toni in the court of Ludovico il Moro came up with it after the chef burned a dessert - it was named pan de Toni, which became panettone.

In reality, its etymology is likely to be far more banal: a panétto is a small loaf of bread in Italian, and adding the suffix -one (pronounced oh-neh) makes a noun bigger: a big small loaf of sweetbread.

4. Its first written appearance was in 1606, when the first Milanese-Italian dictionary was published: it defines Panaton as a large bread made on Christmas Day.

In his own Milanese-Italian glossary printed between 1839 and 1856, Francesco Cherubini writes that Panaton or Panatton de Natal is "a kind of bread made of wheat with butter, eggs, sugar and raisins."

READ ALSO: The food and drink you need for an Italian Christmas feast


5. It didn't gain its current appearance until the 20th century. In 1919 Angelo Motta, creator of the famous Motta brand, starting using a paper sleeve in his bakery to achieve a high, cylindrical shape that we associate with today's panettone; previously it had been much shorter.

Motta, along with rival Gioacchino Alemagna (founder of the famous Alemagna brand) started producing the panettone on an industrial scale in the next couple of decades, leading to cake's surge in popularity throughout Italy and the public perception of it as a Christmas staple, which it remains to this day.

6. It's been regulated since 2003. While you can buy a panettone almost anywhere in Italy at Christmastime, only a select few carry the logo that certifies them as being a Panettone Tipico della Tradizione Artigiana Milanese ('Typical Panettone of the Milanese Artisan Tradition').

Accredited bakeries must use specific ingredients and methods strictly controlled by the Committee of Master Pastry Chefs of the Milanese Tradition.


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Helenebelluomini 2023/12/25 16:40
You forgot Panforte! My favorite is the original Margherita but there are newer flavors now.

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