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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Sweet breads for the holidays

     At this time of year, I gobble up on panettone and pandoro.  The sweet yeasty cakes from Italy whether with raisings or without, are my favorite for the holidays and I survive on them all the time.  I can have them for breakfast, mid-afternoon snacks and as a dessert after lunch or dinner.  This year in particular I have found lots of different panettone and pandoro cakes here in Orlando and decided to go on a tasting adventure.

     Our first cake, Panettone has a long history, finding its roots in the Roman Empire.  It first appeared in Milan, around the 15th century, and spread like wildfire as a traditional bread for Christmas.  Its origins are quite mythical, and they involve a love story of two bakers, the invention of the bread by a nun in order to cheer the convent at Christmastime, and a last minute dessert presented on Christmas Eve at the court of Count Sforza in Milan.  My grandmother used to make her own panettone every year.  It took her a whole day to make the bread, and it was “de rigueur”, as my Milanese grandfather demanded it homemade.  She put everything in it – candied fruit, raisins and walnuts.  It is tradition to eat a slice of this bread on 4th January 4th to commemorate the feast of San Biagio, the patron saint of the throat, in order to insure good health for the coming year.  Italians eat panettone with a nice cappuccino or espresso for breakfast, and with a flute of Prosecco or Vin Santo as a holiday treat.

     Pandoro is original from Verona, the town of the star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet.  Unlike panettone, it never contains raisins or nuts (a factor that makes me prefer it to the former), and is shaped tall and somewhat pyramid-like.  It is sprinkled with lots of confectioner’s sugar just before serving and can be used inventively for a number of desserts.  Pandoro can be cut diagonally and stuffed in between layers with pastry cream and liqueur.  If cut this way each piece resembles a star, making it highly appropriate for the holidays.  It can also be served stuffed with ice-cream or topped with a nice zabaglione sauce.

Juliet's balcony in Verona

     I started the holiday season early this year with an unusual pandoro with crème of pistachio made by Pasticceria Paluani.

     This was a soft cake with an unusual filling.  The creamy slithers of creamy pistachio made it perfect as a dessert on its own.  Generally, store bought pandoros include a packet of icing sugar to sift on top just before serving.  This one was no exception, and with the sugar being vanilla-scented, it made it even more special.  This is the perfect cake to end your Christmas dinner.  Accompany it with a nice flute of chilled prosecco. 

     Next we tried the Tronco di Natale, also from Pasticceria Paluani.  The Italian version of Spain's Brazo de Gitano, this "trunk" purports its Italian origin with its filling of vanilla and hazelnut cream.  Remarkable in shape, it's covered in chocolate and is topped with two sugar flowers on the top, reminiscing of the  wildflowers that just grow on a fallen tree trunk.  I suggest slicing it with a sharp serrated knife and accompanying it with a nice cup of good Italian espresso.  This was my husband's favorite of all the breads we tried.

     Certainly the most outrageous Christmas bread / cake was the profiteroles by Dal Colle.  Leave it to the Italians to create the perfect hostess gift, which consists not only of pandoro filled with hazelnut cream, but is also topped with profiteroles filled with pastry cream.  Needless to say, if you are invited over for Christmas dinner, bring this cake as your contribution.  You'll be remembered as the perfect guest.

The inside of the impressive Dal Colle cake.

     My next test was the panettone from Pasticceria Scarpato made exclusively for Williams-Sonoma.  At $39.95, it was the most expensive bread.  The justification for the splurge?  Marrons glacés of course!  This exclusive bread is as light as cotton as its sponginess is surpassed only by the creamy chunks of glazed chestnuts found throughout.  Once opened, it will last several days under a domed cake stand, and when not so fresh anymore, it makes heavenly French toast.

     Although it is an expensive cake, should you sign up for the Williams-Sonoma VISA card, you get $25.00 statement credit plus an additional discount given at the store just for opening the account.  Hence, it is the perfect opportunity to get this sumptuous bread and indeed enjoy the holidays.

     Last but not least, we tried something from Germany - the Baumkuchen, or tree cake.  I remember this uniquely shaped, distinguished-flavoured cake from my days in Argentina.  We used to order it for the holidays from Confitería La Suiza in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Villa Luro, where my cousin lived.  

     Baumkuchen is a unique cake with roots as far back as the 1500's.  It originated in the area of Bohemia and is cooked on a spit while "brushing on even layers of batter and then rotating the spit around a heat source. Each layer is allowed to brown before a new layer of batter is poured. When the cake is removed and sliced, each layer is divided from the next by a golden line, resembling the growth rings on a crosscut tree" (

     As you may imagine, this cake is not simple to make due to not only because of the special equipment necessary for the task, but also the required skill of the pastry maker.  It is always recommended to be accompanied by champagne or prosecco, which is what we chose for our year end celebrations.  The baumkuchen I found was at World Market and was covered in chocolate, and it is a mini example of this tall, traditional cake.  Still, it is an exotic addition to any holiday table.

     I hope you have fun trying some or all of these cakes just as much as we have.  And remember, the diet starts in January.  


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