Like many other Italian foods before it, panettone has found its way onto the shelves of supermarkets and speciality food shops with surprising ease, and looks here to stay as a staple of British Christmas tables.
Panettone originated from Milan in the Lombardy region of Italy in the early 1900s, but soon made its way both around the country and to wherever in the world Italians found a home. It is a sweet, yeasted bread, baked round and tall like a cake. While intended to be eaten as a dessert, we say it works at any time of day; plain or toasted, with butter, cream, ice cream or a piece of cheese, and a glass of something sweet â€“ the Italians drink it with vin santo.
The traditional recipe includes flour, eggs, milk, butter, sugar, raisins and candied citrus peel, and is often finished with almonds and sugar crystals. The rising process is similar to that used for sourdough bread â€“ flour is added to a â€˜motherâ€™ and the dough bubbles away for up to 20 hours, giving the panettone its trademark height.
They are ready for the oven once the dough reaches the top of its paper case, but the trickiest part comes after baking, as they are cooled upside down so the height isnâ€™t lost. Achieving the soft, light and springy texture is a labour-intensive process, so most people, even the Italians, buy their panettone.
Panettone are much lighter on the dried fruits than mince pies and Christmas pud, but if you canâ€™t abide raisins there are plenty of other flavours to choose from: chocolate, lemon and chestnut are all popular and still feel festive.
Â£17.50 for 600g, Sous Chef
Best for: Luxury
A soft and springy dough â€“ as all panettone should be â€“ studded with candied chestnuts and thick chestnut cream. This rich treat is a reminder of the significance of chestnuts at Christmas, and goes well with coffee ice cream and a festive pudding wine.
Loison panettone are beautifully packaged so make great gifts. The business has been going since 1938 and while it respects traditional baking methods, making each panettone with eggs, butter, flour and the natural sourdough leavening method, itâ€™s really forward-thinking in the flavour stakes, using cherry, chamomile, salted caramel, rose and mandarin in its products.
Â£15 for 1kg, Marks and Spencer
Best for:Â A tasty topping
M&S has come up with a treat thatâ€™s both beauty and the beast this Christmas. This 1kg whopper will feed a crowd, with some left over to make a bread and butter pudding. Itâ€™s coated in a sweet sugar and ground hazelnut crackled glaze and strewn with crunchy sugar crystals, and the finish makes it a very pretty centrepiece cake.
Â£16 for 500g, Vallebona
Best for: Generous and high quality chocolate
Weâ€™re not always a fan of chocolate panettone, as theyâ€™re more often than not bread sprinkled with a few chocolate chips, or an excuse to overpower the yeasty sweetness of a panettone with choc, but this example made in Piedmont might be our find of the season.
The bread is moist with satisfying pockets of air, while the chocolate is a riot of dark cocoa smears â€“ a very grown up Nutella on toast. Vallebona has a shop in Wandsworth, South London, and supplies Italian and Japanese foods to many top restaurants, as well to the public online. For an extra Â£2, you can buy a cute gift-wrapped version tied with a woollen pompom.
Â£20 for 750g, Amazon
Best for: Aromatic flavour
The producerâ€™s own extra virgin olive oil is used in this panettone, instead of half the butter. This makes for a moist and crumbly cake, which is somewhat less bread-like than the traditional bake, and with a more complex flavour. Itâ€™s not really â€˜lighterâ€™ than the traditional panettone, but it is less buttery and more aromatic.
Nudo uses olives from its own sustainable groves and operates an â€˜adopt a treeâ€™ scheme where you can invest in the project and get discounts on products, including this panettone and its high quality oils.
Â£15.85 for 500g, Seggiano
Best for: A top-quality citrus tang
Thereâ€™s a lot going on in this indulgent panettone, made in the Lake Garda area, making it more of a dessert than a breakfast treat, but hey itâ€™s Christmas so you can eat pudding all day if you want to.
The sweet and springy dough is peppered with tangy hits of candied lemon peel and slaked with a creamy lemon curd thatâ€™s been flavoured with Limoncello made on the Amalfi coast with its famous fruits.
Seggiano also does chestnut and vin santo panettone, but this sharp and boozy citrus one is great as a teatime treat or after a heavy meal.
Â£4 for 280g, Ocado
Best for: A stocking filler
Panettone doesnâ€™t have to be a family affair. There are lots of dinky mini versions around, which make great stocking fillers. And this variety pack is a bargain selection of three 100g cakes: one traditional, one chocolate chip, and one plain pandoro.
Â£3.29 for 750g, Lidl
Best for: Value
This is a rich, heavily-fruited panettone with a deliciously moist dough. The abundance of candied orange peel and big and plump raisins make it a sweet slice, which you could balance out by eating with a hard, mature cheese â€“ certainly a smear of butter.
We canâ€™t say how Lidl has achieved this for the price, but in a blind test (which this wasnâ€™t) weâ€™d have put a far higher value on this baby.
Â£15 for 750g, Waitrose
Best for: Sturdy packaging
This is quite heavy for a panettone, but the dough is a lovely pale yellow colour, and sweet and buttery, and the raisins are big and juicy and surrounded by generous shreds of orange and lemon candied peel.It comes in a tin so it will travel well if youâ€™re crossing the country (or continents) this Christmas.
Â£29.95 for 900g, Carluccioâ€™s
Best for: Gifting
As a celebration cake, panettone is very often served with a glass of fizz, and Carluccioâ€™s is wisely selling a gift set of its rich panettone flavoured with a prosecco custardy cream, and a bottle of the famous Italian fizz.
You can buy the Venetian-made cake, which comes in a purple and gold box, on its own for Â£19.95, but the set will make a generous gift for one of your favourite hosts.
Â£24.50 for 1kg, Sous Chef
Best for: Interesting flavours
This package is almost too pretty to open, but once inside youâ€™ll find a hulk of a panettone with its sweet and buttery dough peppered with dark chocolate and candied black cherries, which offer a sweet-sour note to the rich bread.
Flamigni began life in the 1930s, as a coffee and cake shop in Italyâ€™s Emila-Romagna, the region famed for foods including Parma ham and parmesan, and its wide range of panettone includes bakes with pear, orange and pistachio flavours.
Â£12.95 for 500g, Carluccioâ€™s
Best for: Gluten-free eating
Trying to create a panettone without gluten is a tough task, as the secret of the bake is in the long rising process when the networks of gluten proteins develop, allowing the dough to both rise and keep its form, which is how we get a stretchy yet firm result.
This panettone is firmer and darker than is usual, but it is springy and has a really rich buttery flavour, and delicious citrus peel. The dark colour is probably from the honey used to sweeten the dough, which adds complexity to the sweetness of the fruits.
Â£14.99 for 500g, Vorrei
Best for: Dairy-free diets
The wholegrain flour and agave syrup lend this vegan panettone from Milan-based brand Evvivo a really rich and sweet flavour. Itâ€™s delicious toasted with butter but, although itâ€™s leavened for a few days like traditional panettone, without the eggs and butter (organic extra virgin olive oil is used instead) itâ€™s struggled to achieve the stretchy texture and is more like a tea bread, albeit a very delicious one. The raisins are plump and tasty but thereâ€™s no peel.
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