January 16, 2010


As usual, my posting is not particularly timely.  Between all of our holiday traveling and the formidable task of recalling and recording all the details of my cooking the past few weeks looming ahead, this post kept slipping to the bottom of my to-do list.
Several weeks ago, a holiday episode of “The  Best Thing I Ever Ate” inspired me to rediscover panettone.   Most of the panettone I had eaten up to this point was either imported for the mass market in America (and had probably been on the shelf a little too long -- yuck) or served in the form of panettone bread pudding (yum!).   Despite the months I spent in Italy, I never had panettone while I was there, but I knew for all its tradition that it must be better than the grocery-store versions I had tried. 
So I set out to find the perfect panettone recipe.  Unfortunately, I didn’t come up with many options.  My Google search for “panettone recipe” yielded little.   Most were for various deserts that called for store-bought panettone (panettone bread pudding, for example).
Food Network offered only one recipe.  Although it had good reviews, it skipped the traditional multi-build yeast recipe in favor of a quick-bread style panettone.  No, thank you. 
Other results were dubious at best.  An All Recipes entry called for yogurt and a mere 1-hour rise time.  Another recipe seemed to be pretty authentic, but it’s poster advised against making it, since it was such a long, drawn-out process.  I can certainly handle long and drawn-out, but I am not interested in a recipe that isn’t even recommended by the guy who posted it. 
My many Italian cookbooks were no help.  I was particularly disappointed that The Silver Spoon offered nothing. (But why would it?  Italians buy their panettone.) 
Finally, I came across a recipe in The Bread Baker’s Apprentice.   Despite some problematic instructions in his chapter on sourdough (which he has since amended on his website), I trust Peter Reinhart’s expertise on bread, and I was sure that even if the panettone wasn’t perfectly authentic, it would still produce excellent results.
The first thing to do was revive my sourdough starter.  Since my initial attempts at sourdough last fall, my starter had sat untouched in the refrigerator.  Now, sourdough starter is a pretty robust creature.  A healthy one is supposed to keep in the fridge for a couple of months and should revive to its original potency after a few days of refreshing.  My starter, however, had initially only been fed a few times over the course of about a week and so had not reached its full strength before I allowed it to lie dormant.  I conveniently forgot this little detail and waited to take the starter out of the fridge until two days before I intended to start the panettone.  According to Peter Reinhart, a starter can be revived in only two days, but I quickly realized than mine was going to take more time.   Silly me for waiting until the last minute.
I started by following Mr. Reinhart’s instructions to discard (I actually just set aside) half of the starter and double the remainder by adding equal parts flour and water.   After 6 hours the starter should be bubbly and can then be refrigerated until the next day when it will be ready for use.  However, mine didn’t seem to be waking up that quickly.   I refrigerated the starter anyway, and took it out the next day to try again.  This time I used both the original and the refreshed starter, setting aside half of each and tripling the remainder of each.  That evening, I attempted a couple of test sourdough loaves, using each of the refreshed starters, which seemed to be slightly more active than the previous day. 
Surprisingly, the batch that had only been fed once performed better than the one that had been fed twice.
Final proof and baking of the good loaf:
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I’m not sure what went wrong here (aside from the crust that formed on top):IMG_9524 IMG_9527 IMG_9532

Encouraged by the results of my sourdough loaf, I decided to refresh the starters one more time, experimenting with different ratios with each half of each “generation,” before starting my panettone the next day.  I wish I had been more precise with my methods, measurements, and record-keeping, so I could more accurately report on my little science experiment.  

The following day,  I discarded the two that seemed least active, set one aside as backup, and used the one that looked the most promising: a direct descendent of the sourdough loaf starter and I believe three refreshments from the original starter.
The first build was a “wild yeast sponge” comprised of a cup each of starter, warm milk and flour. 
In a separate bowl, I combined dried fruits to soak overnight in brandy and vanilla, orange, and lemon extracts.
Six hours later, I was relieved to find that the sponge had become bubbly and had risen slightly.  I proceeded with the second build, adding to the dried fruits and sponge the rest of the ingredients, including more flour, eggs, butter, blanched almonds, a bit of sugar, and yeast. 
Two hours later, it has risen almost to the top of the panettone papers! (I found them at Sur La Table, and they were so much fun to use!)
The panettone baked for an hour…
    IMG_9608   IMG_9618 
…and then we had to resist the temptation to eat it, since we were taking it to share with my family the next day.
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I made a second batch when we got back from Arkansas – this time to take to Brian’s family in St. Louis. 
I was happy to find that my starter was alive and kicking!
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The first batch had been slightly drier than I wanted, so I reduced the cooking time by about 5-10 minutes, which definitely made a difference.
We had the little ones for breakfast the next morning, and they were quite good.
As I mentioned earlier, I’m not an authenticity expert when it comes to panettone.   Brian and I recently tried a panettone imported from Italy by Whole Foods (whom I trust more than, say, T.J. Maxx).  The primary difference between the WF bread and mine (besides the fact that I forgot to buy candied orange peel) was the texture.  The WF bread seemed like it had quite a bit more butter than mine.   It’s melt-in-your-mouth texture was delightful.  I think I still have some research to do for next year.
All this research on panettone has me thinking about another Italian holiday bread.  For a while, I have been curious a bread my family makes every Easter. It's a recipe from my Mom's family, who is from a little town in the foothills of the Italian Alps.  It’s a dense, rich bread that  we’ve dubbed "Easter bread" (it takes three days to rise).  Like panettone, Easter bread is made with raisins and eggs, but has more sugar and calls for oil instead of butter. I did some looking while I was living in Italy, but I was never able to find an Italian name for it.  Around Easter time, I found in an Italian newspaper a very short article  on a raisin bread called “uvetta” (which also just means “raisin”), but my internet searches yielded no further insight.  Maybe it's a regional recipe and my family's dialectical  name for it was lost along with the language.
I think this calls for a research expedition.

1 comment:

jmc said...

This makes me so happy! Mmmm, Easter bread!! When you decide to return to Italy to do some research, let me know so I can be your secretary. I miss you!

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