How I became a panettone proselytizer
When you ask people what they look forward to most about the holidays, you’ll likely get a lot of the same answers: The lights! The festivities! The punch! The warm moments with family, sitting around a fire, sharing stories and gratitude for one another.
Me? I look forward to the carnage.
Every year around Christmastime, my mom and I take part in a simple but barbaric tradition. On an unspecified late night, usually after a day of preparing for or decompressing from holiday parties, the two of us gather around the kitchen island at my family home and, like hyenas to a fresh elephant carcass, tear into a loaf of panettone, the naturally leavened Milanese holiday fruit bread. The fluffy, eggy bread is best eaten with one’s hands, plain, though adding a slab of salted butter is always a nice touch. I can’t quite remember how or when the tradition began, but it’s the activity I anticipate most once a chill hits the air.
Panettone (plural: panettoni) rose to popularity in Italy in the 20th century and has since gone international. It’s airy like brioche, has a deep brown flaky crust, and is baked in special decorative paper molds. It has a texture akin to sandwich bread, in that when you compress it between your fingers it can be molded into Play-Doh-esque forms. It’s porous and slightly sour, a flavor it derives from the intense fermenting process it undergoes before it hits the oven. It is labor-intensive and prohibitively difficult to bake.
And an overwhelming majority of my American friends hate it.
Like discovering that your best friend has been lying to you about how much they love that one sweater you have been wearing for 13 years, or when everyone encouraged you to get bangs, when I learned of the long list of people I know who dislike panettone, I felt betrayed. “It just tastes bad,” one friend—maybe now enemy?—wrote on a Facebook post I had made about panettone. “Old people like this. If you want to be young forever, you will hate it forever like me,” another added. And in a debilitatingly direct blow: “It just looks dusty AF.” A close family member—maybe now enemy?—wrote, “It’s gross.” Even my mom admitted to me when I asked, “I think more people hate it than like it.”
The association that several friends said they have with panettone is that it holds a space on their grandmother’s pantry shelves, collecting dust, a dessert bread to be eaten in theory but never in practice. Over the course of the several pre-holiday weeks I’ve been talking about panettone and the yearly tradition I love so much, dusty was the word most people used to describe it. Dusty and dry. One friend even suggested that people don’t actually eat it, that it just travels from home to home as an easy gift to give, then regift, then give, then regift again.
But… the carnage. Surely, our household was not the only one Stateside that enjoyed such an indisputably cool and good and correct tradition. Ten years ago, Italian bakers were making on average 117 million panettone and pandoro (panettone without dried fruit) every year.
Historically, the most foolproof method for turning a hater of a food into a lover is to make that food for the person yourself. It’s difficult (and also rude) to turn down a meal that a loved one has made for you in the first place, so at least I had the threat of poor manners on my side. If I made panettone for my friends, I reasoned, they would love it. I would be right. Order would be restored.
So I made panettone. Or, rather, I tried and failed to make panettone. Five brutal times.
As Tejal Rao wrote in the New YorkTimes last month, panettone has become an inexplicable obsession for American bakers in recent history. Bakeries across the country have been tackling their own versions of the bread, because, as Rao writes, “No bread is more difficult, or more rewarding, to get right.” On my sixth trial, I came close to my perfect ideal of a panettone: light, citrusy, sour, with plump raisins and candied orange. When panettone is good, it is really unbelievably good. I had made something unbelievably good for my pals to enjoy. They couldn’t deny me now.
After eating half of the panettone myself, I began to serve slices of it to friends whenever the opportunity arose. I brought panettone to a party. I carried chunks of it in my bag in case I ran into people I knew in my neighborhood. I talked about panettone over the past month more than any other subject, to the point of actual embarrassment. “I didn’t realize you were so obsessive,” one of my friends said. Neither did I.
At one party this month, whenever a new friend showed up, I would suggest, “Hello, why not try the panettone?” (I had brought mine, and three mini loaves imported from Milanese panettone baker G. Cova Co.) Politely, friends would eat pieces in front of me, claiming, “This is better than I thought it would be.” While ripping apart a slice (correct), one person said, “It’s bread. Why is there so much fruit in it?” One friend tried to offer half of a slice to his girlfriend, whose solemn face communicated that she was not interested, thank you. The predominant reaction was that of mild-mannered curiosity—not quite enjoyment, not quite approval. “It’s… fine.” There were a few congratulations at finally having achieved my goal of having made panettone, a convenient complimentary cover-up for if they actually liked it or not.
The following day, when I had considered my experiment a failure and an embarrassment—a month’s worth of ceaseless panettone chatter and obsession down the toilet—the party’s host texted me. At 4 a.m., someone had turned to her and said, “That panettone is unbelievable.” A small win—but a win nonetheless.
Over the month, I did convince one panettone hater to see the light. When I fed an old friend a slice of my panettone after dinner one night, she pointed out that part of the confusion around it likely comes from just simple cultural differences. “If you didn’t grow up eating challah”—like she did—”you might not understand it either.” I told her about the tradition of carnage, the yearly yellow box appearing in our pantry and calling to us like a siren. “I think I get panettone now,” she told me, tearing little pieces off of the section I’d cut for her. “I’m a convert.”
For everyone else, a hopeless cause still has an upside: The more haters there are, the more panettone there is left for me.