Friday, 4 November 2011

On Panettone, for Paolo

Chapter 1: A Story

It was early November 2006 and I was just two months into my quarter life crisis. I had finished the course work for my Masters program a few months previous and was half-heartedly working on my thesis, as well as working full-time. I was twenty-five, alive, and itching to skip town. I remember listening to Breakdown by Jack Johnson on repeat in my car, feeling positively stuck on a path I couldn't see a way off of. It wasn't a bad path, but I was feeling antsy, bored, and uninspired.

I hope this old train breaks down
Then I could take a walk around
And see what there is to see...
All the people in the street
That I'll never get to meet
If these tracks don't bend somehow

Belle (yeah, that's right, from Beauty and the Beast) knew where I was coming from when she sang: "I want adventure in the great wide somewhere / I want it more than I can tell." Even as a kid watching Disney movies, words like these resonated and stuck in my bones. My heart and mind were completely elsewhere. I was tired of being a spectator; I wanted to start participating in life. 

It was on one of those days in early November when a friend from my program, Laura, forwarded me an e-mail. "In the spirit of helping you put off your thesis," was the subject line. (I did eventually finish that thesis, by the way.)

It was a job posting for a junior consultancy (a partially funded and glorified internship) in Bonn, Germany. I didn't imagine for a second that I had a shot at it, but went ahead and applied anyway. Three weeks later, and having come down with a bad case of mono (of all things!), I was shipping off to Germany to begin my new life. Laura's e-mail changed everything. It turned my life upside down. It got me off of that train and into the life I so desperately wanted. (I still owe her a boat-load of lemon tarts for that.)

I had no one in Germany at first.  No friends, no support network. Instead, I had immigration offices. Visas. Foreign languages. Bank cards that don't work. People who don't understand your hand gestures as a means of communication, or your feeble first attempts at their language. Currencies that don't make any sense. Pocket dictionaries to help me understand my washing machine. I took photos of ordinary houses in my neighbourhood that, to me, were beautiful. I was an outsider. No, I was not in the middle of a desert or rainforest, but life was infinitely more different now I and had to develop a new set of life skills, fast.

Rather than feeling intimidated, however, I was absolutely romanced by the idea of starting fresh in a new place. In practice, it wasn't always that way: I do recall that first New Year's Eve being particularly lonely,  in my kitty cat pajamas, feeling friendless save for my 2 Euro bottle of wine. But all that did was make me determined to never find myself in that position again. Clearly I was ok with being alone, but clearly I was not ok with being alone on holidays. So I made friends. Really wonderful ones. Friends who I haven't seen in a long time now but who I miss dearly. Every day. They're an important part of my personal history.

I found one of these friends in my supervisor at work, Paolo. No joke, and no blowing smoke up anyone's any thing, I was extremely fortunate to find myself working under the best supervisor in the best unit of the organization. It's just a fact. It was a great match.

Paolo was and is truly one of a kind. He started out as my supervisor, became my mentor, then my friend, and then a combination of all three. He gave me challenging, meaningful work I could feel proud of, when he easily could have had me making photocopies or taking on everyone's grunt work. He praised my skills and work in front of anyone who would listen. He had weekly, exclusive chats over tea with me to check in on how I was feeling. Was I being given gratifying work? Was anyone causing me problems or not taking me seriously? Where did I see myself in 3 months time? 3 years time?

Who does that?

After my very first day of work that November, Paolo took me out to a German Christmas market - the Weihnachtsmarkt - to show me the sights and sounds of German holiday fare, in both food and drink. It's easy to see this day and this period as a turning point in my relationship with food. It's certainly the first time I ever started taking pictures of food. I was completely enthralled with the stuff!

As time went by, I came to learn that Paolo had a bothersome, trouble-making sweet tooth. Trouble-making for me, I should add. Hailing from the Italian part of Switzerland, lean and fit, Paolo would sashay into work every day with chocolates, marzipan, pastries, and cakes. "Oh, but I just got this from Switzerland and it's gorgeous! Just try a little bit?"

One of my favourite things Paolo used to bring in was panettone: an eggy, Italian Christmas loaf full of raisins and citrus. The memories I have of it are tucked away and wrapped up in the same soft spot as my memories of those initial days and weeks of my life in Germany. Of all the sweets and treats I was privy to that year, there was something special about panettone that warmed my heart. The spongy texture, buttery flavour, and its subtle, citrusy sweetness was downright intoxicating. Comfort food. Paolo would sweep into work with it in those pretty boxes tied with ribbon, and I was powerless to resist.

I have Paolo to thank for a lot. I ended up staying in that position for almost a year, and it was this experience that set an important standard for me, professionally, in terms of what I expect from and want to contribute to my place of employment. It was also Paolo's excitement over food that sparked my own curiosity and sent my culinary journey into over-drive. 

Chapter 2: The Recipe

Adapted from The International Collection: Home-Cooked Meals From Around the World

1 pkg active dry yeast (2 1/4 tsp.)
2/3 cup warm (not hot) milk
1 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 cup Calvados
1/2 cup golden raisins
4 egg yolks
2 eggs
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1 Tbsp. orange zest (from 1 large orange)
1 Tbsp. lemon zest (from 1 large lemon)
1 Tbsp. pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 tsp. salt
3/4 cup butter, softened
4 cups (approx.) all-purpose flour
1/2 cup chopped candied, mixed peel

2 tsp butter, melted

For the Sponge: In a large bowl, sprinkle yeast over milk; cover and let stand until yeast starts to rise to surface, about 10 minutes. Stir in flour to make a sticky dough. Cover with greased plastic wrap and let rise in warm, draft-free place until bubbly and doubled in bulk, about 1 1/2 hours.

For the Dough Mixture: In the meantime, microwave Calvados on high until hot, about 20 seconds. Add raisins; cover and let stand until plump, about 1 hour. When finished, reserve the liquid, and drain the raisins, pressing to extract the liquid. Set aside separately.

In large bowl with electric mixer, beat yolks, eggs, sugar, orange zest, lemon zest, vanilla, salt and reserved Calvados until light and thickened. Beat in butter, 1 tbsp at a time, to form curdled-looking  mixture. Add sponge and 3 cups of the flour; mix by hand until a sticky dough forms. Transfer to a well-floured surface; knead, adding remaining flour as necessary, until smoth and rather buttery, about 8 minutes. Let rest for 5 minutes.

Press down dough. Knead in raisins and mixed peel. Place in greased bowl; cover with greased plastic wrap. Let rise in warm, draft-free place until doubled in bulk, about 2 hours. Punch down dough. Turn out onto floured surface; form into a ball, pinching bottom to make the top smooth.

Grease a panettone mould (leave ungreased if using a store-bought paper mould) or a 2-lb (900g) coffee can. If using the can, line the bottom and sides with parchment paper, extending 1 inch (2.5 cm) above the rim. Place dough, seam side down, in mould. Cover and let rise in a warm, draft-free place until doubled in bulk, about 2 hours. (You can also let rise in the refrigerator for up to 12 hours; remove from refrigerator 1 hour before baking.)

For the Topping: Cut 1/4-inch (5 mm) deep X shape in top; brush with butter.

Bake in bottom third of 350F (180C) oven until tester inserted in centre comes out clean, 90 to 105 minutes, covering with foil after 40 minutes or once the top is milk chocolate in colour. Let cool on rack for 1 hour. Pull the paper to remove from the can, if using. (Make ahead: Wrap and store for up to 1 day or overwrap with heavy-duty foil and freeze for up to 2 weeks.)

If using paper moulds, you can cut right into the paper to get your wedge of wonderful Christmas cake.

Makes 1 loaf (12 slices).

Chapter 3: Panettone & "Let's Make Christmas"

Panettone takes a long time to make. A really long time to make. The ingredients are not extravagant, however, and the method is quite straightforward, so it's worth a shot if you happen to be around the house for the day. I started making the sponge at 8:45AM last Saturday morning. The panettone went into the oven at 4:30PM, came out at 6:10PM, and by 8 o'clock at night I was eating my first piece in years. Eyes closed, stupid grin on face.

Panettone is a labour of love, if ever I've seen one, but what better way to show your appreciation for someone this Christmas than to spend an entire day working on their gift? I'm entering my panettone into Vanessa Kimbell's Let's Make Christmas event. Vanessa started this blogging event in order to help generate ideas for home- and hand-made Christmas gifts this year, rather than buying things that people don't really need. Homemade gifts are about so much more than saving money, too; they're meaningful gifts that truly come from the heart.

You can make every element of this panettone as a gift, including the baking mould and the wrapping. I think this makes it particularly well-suited for Let's Make Christmas. I bought my moulds online at Golda's Kitchen, but you can even make the paper moulds the panettone is baked in, as demonstrated here on this blog.

You can put the panettone in a plain box, as I did, and then personalize and decorate it. You could use an old tin, coffee can, or put the loaf in a decorative bag. You can make all of these things by re-using items and materials in your home.

Panettone is one heartwarming gift. If Paolo lived a little closer, I'd make him some and hope against hope that it measured up to the bread he remembers from home.
Chapter 4: Final Notes

Regardless of culture, faith, or background, I hope you find this post helpful if you'd like to make something for your loved ones in the coming winter months!

Finally, I just recently reviewed The International Collection: Home-Cooked Meals From Around the World by  The Canadian Living Test Kitchen - where I found this panettone recipe - over at CookThatBook. I'd love it if you stopped by to read my review and check out the other recipes I tested! You can find my review here.


What kinds of gifts will you be making this year?


  1. What a great article & delicious recipe! It's really good one. It's make me hungry :)
    I will try this soon. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Because of Belle in the beauty in the beast, I was inspired to travel to world too.

    I know its horribel when u dont know the language of a new country. I had gonne to switzerland to work and the people there coudlnt understand my german. lol

    Thx for the Panettone introduction, it is new to me. =)

  3. Reading this makes me sure that we'd be awesome friends in real life! Love how tiny moment like an email can change your life. Or just simple decisions. I remember having to chose where to work after graduation: New Orleans at an Emeril restaurant or at a private golf club on Martha's Vineyard. SO happy I choose MV!!

  4. I loved your story! How wonderful that you rec'd that email, landed the job and met Paolo. What wonderful experiences you were able to enjoy, not to mention the people you met because of it. I'm sure if Paola had a slice of your Panettone he would remark on how wonderful it was, for it truly is.

  5. Great post, it's so lovely to learn a little bit more of you each time!I love making pannetone too, it is time consuming like Xmas pudding that takes 8 hours of steaming but well worth the effort!
    This recipe differs slightly from mine, I might, in the interest of learning and sharing try your recipe this year! Will definitely let you know when I do. It makes the best bread and butter pudding along with left over Xmas pudding or mincemeat! Recipe next month! PS: Do you still speak German?! xxx

  6. And I thought I was the only one with a 'great boss/mentor/friend' story!! oh well... The Panettone sounds like a handful but also looks like a mouthful:)

  7. You delightful story was a joy to read. I'm inspired to try making the panettone this holiday season. A comforting labor of love project on a cold rainy day.

  8. Beautiful post that weaves together such a personal story with food and what looks like a killer recipe! Maybe...just maybe I might actually tackle the panettone this year :)

  9. Great story, and the recipe looks wonderful. I intend on comparing it with another recipe I found in a rather large cookbook, on baking various types of bread from around the world. Just looking at the photos makes my mouth water, just like my mother's old 'Betty Crocker's picture cookbook, published in the early 50's.
    I must say I may just go with this recipe, I intend on spending a whole weekend baking this along with a Stolen, and eventually 'Sticky Buns' with all the candied fruit and cherries! I intend on giving out Panettone for holiday gifts, in small sized, and one BIG one for me! Thanks for all the work you did in presenting this I really enjoyed your heartfelt, and hard work. I live Montreal, bye the way. I also have become a new follower, and look forward to much more from you. Later......from zeeee city of French cooking.....oui!