Most Italians would agree with me when I say that it wouldn’t be Christmas without Panettone. This golden dome-shaped sweet bread studded with raisins, candied orange peel and citron, that traditionally makes its appearance for Christmas and New Year, is a must to celebrate the holidays in Italy. You see them everywhere from artisan bakery windows to specialty stores and supermarkets, wrapped in colorful, decorative boxes that make them look like Christmas gifts perfect to bestow on family and friends for the holidays. In Italy, we often find ourselves with too many panettoni and don’t quite know what to do with them. I created this recipe for Panettone filled with Whipped Cream, Chocolate and Hazelnuts as a way to dress up the cake-like bread and make it even more festive. Wrapped with a shiny ribbon and sliced at the table to reveal the surprise filling inside, it makes an elegant and joyous dessert for holiday dinners.
Panettone is a sweet, yeasted bread whose elaboration is considered a true accomplishment in the pastry world. Its rich, buttery dough somehow defies gravity as it rises three times in thirty-plus hours to form a light and airy texture scented by the sweet raisins and candied citrus fruits that dot its ethereal crumb. Baked in a decorative paper mold until deep burnished brown then hung upside down to maintain its distinctive rounded dome shape and impressive height, panettone is a holiday ritual and symbol of celebration in Italy. Invented in 15th century Milan, its legend has a few different versions and all of them reflect the labor of love that panettone is to prepare. The classic version containing raisins, candied orange peel, and citron is the original Panettone Milanese, and an obligatory slice is enjoyed as is or embellished with a dollop of mascarpone cream, crema di mascarpone, as a traditional holiday dessert or snack. While there are many commercial brands available, the best panettoni are made by the specialty bakeries of Milan. Since I’m not in Milan this Christmas, I enlisted the help of my Italian baker friend Gary Rulli for this post. Gary kindly offered me the authentic artisan panettoni Milanesi he makes at his Italian caffe’ and bakery, Emporio Rulli in Larkspur, California to use for my dessert.
While this dessert is seemingly complex, it actually takes very little time and effort since the panettone is store bought. And that’s a very good thing during the holidays when time is precious. The first step to making it is to slice the dome top off the panettone and hollow out the cylindrical bread loaf to make room for the filling. I cut a circular shape in the panettone, leaving a sturdy bread border around the edges and along the bottom, then pull out the center crumb with my fingers to create the empty cavity where the filling will go. To add even more lovely citrus flavor to the dessert, I sprinkle the extracted crumb with Grand Marnier orange liqueur and let it soak in while the other ingredients for the filling are prepared.
First, I toast hazelnuts in the oven and tuck them into a kitchen towel to steam before rubbing vigorously in the cloth to remove bitter skins before chopping. Then, I shave a dark chocolate bar (70% cacao preferred) into shards using the blade of my chef’s knife. Here, I also chopped some homemade candied orange peel into tiny dice to add more citrus flavor. Lastly, heavy cream is lightly sweetened with confectioners sugar and whipped until thick and billowy before the chopped ingredients and liqueur baptized panettone pieces are carefully folded in.
The filling is spooned into the empty hollow of the panettone and its dome bread lid placed on top before it goes into the refrigerator to set for a couple of hours. And that’s it! Dessert is made with plenty of time to spare for last minute shopping or gift wrapping. Before serving the panettone, I dust the top with a generous snowfall of powdered sugar and garnish with extra chocolate curls shaved from the bar. Then I tie a beautiful gold ribbon around the bread and serve it on a gilt platter.
At the table (once the oohs and aahs have subsided), I remove the ribbon and cut the panettone into wedge-shaped slices, complete with decorative paper border, and serve it with glasses of chilled Moscato d’Asti. My Panettone filled with Whipped Cream, Chocolate and Hazelnuts is a festive, delicious and, above all, easy to prepare dessert that makes holiday entertaining effortless and enjoyable. Buon Natale e Felice Anno Nuovo a tutti! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all!