Panettone

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At this time of the year grocery shops and bakeries all over Italy are filling with stacks of colorful boxes containing all kinds of Panettone, a rich, fluffy, naturally leavened bread cake filled with candied fruit and raisins. Originally from Milano, today it has become a tradition in the Piemonte region as well, where the classic recipe sees the addition of a hazelnut glaze topping. There is another very similar cake, Pandoro, originally from the town of Verona. It is baked into the shape of a star and is without raisins and fruit.

Panettone is a century old tradition, a delicious treat present on all Italian tables during the Christmas holidays. Apparently, the etymology is related to it being, essentially, a large sweet bread: “pane” in Italian means bread and “panettone” literally translates as “large bread”. But there’s also a legend saying that the inventor was a baker called Toni. The phrase “Pan de Toni” (bread of Toni) triggered the birth of the name.

The secret to any good panettone is the choice of ingredients. Renowned bakers use pure butter, fresh eggs, top quality flours and first choice fruit. The yeast must be rigorously a sour dough (called “madre”, mother) essential because it provides a very slow leavening. Some bakers have kept the same starter for centuries, passing it on from generation to generation.impasto_glassaWe recently visited Galup, a baker in north-western Italy that has been using the same yeast starter since 1922. This special colony of bacteria has survived a war, witnessed the advent of TV, computers and indeed quite a number of generations. Natural yeasts add complex flavors and unique nuances which commercial yeasts would never be able to achieve.

Panettone is delicious on its own, as a dessert or even as a snack, paired with a cup of tea or coffee. It even makes for a pretty incredible extra-decadent French toast! On Christmas Eve Italians serve it with a fortified wine custard called zabaione. Here is a quick and easy recipe:

Panettone e Zabaione
Ingredients
1 Panettone or Pandoro
4 egg yolks
¾ cup white sugar
½ cup fortified wine (Marsala or Port)

Method
Start by making your zabaione cream. Separate egg yolks and mix with sugar. Once combined place your bowl in a pot with boiling water (bain-marie). Add the wine and whisk the cream until it thickens to a creamy texture. Slice the Panettone and serve with the zabaione on the side.

Buon appetito!

Focaccia made easy

Focaccia is an Italian flat bread that comes in many variations throughout the country. Try this easy traditional recipe from the northwestern region Liguria. All you need is a little time.. plan to make it when you are at home for a few hours, like on a Sunday afternoon. We choose to use a whole grain unrefined, unenriched and unbleached flour, stone ground made from only Italian wheat. Whole flours are rich in nutrients and taste and will make a darker and more flavourful bread. Usually local farmer’s markets will offer local good quality, possibly organic wholewheat flours. We also love natural fermentations and love keeping a sour dough starter.. it’s a great excuse to have to make bread, pizza and focaccia at home every week or so. It sounds scary but once you get into the habit, it’s a piece of cake. If this is one step to far for you, fresh yeast will work just as well.

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Yield: Makes a large tray
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cooking and leavening time: 3 hours

Ingredients
Mother yeast starter, 3 ounce (6 tablespoons)
or fresh yeast from store, if so 2 ounces are enough
Whole grain flour, 1 pack (1 kg)
Luke warm water, 2 ½ cups
Sea salt, 2 tablespoons –
Sugar, 1 tablespoon
Extra virgin olive oil, 9 tablespoons–

Utensils Needed
Oven, oven tray, electric mixer or bowl, tea towel, rimmed baking sheet

Method
Place all ingredients but the oil in the electric mixer or in a bowl and mix or knead until smooth and uniform. Add 4 tablespoons of oil and mix. Cover the bowl with a damp clean tea towel and let sit for about 2 hours, or until the dough has roughly doubled. Preheat oven to 390 F. Grease the tray with a little oil (1 tablespoon). Now knead lightly and gently press into the baking tray, flatten to fill whole tray and obtain a sheet no higher than 1 inch. If the dough is too sticky use some flour on your hands. Drizzle the whole surface with the remaining 4 tablespoons of oil and 2 tablespoons of water. Bake for about 30 to 40 minutes, or until the crust looks crispy and light brown.
Enjoy with some delicious spreads, cheeses and salumi (cured meats).

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