Buon Natale! Christmas is almost here and in Italy that means a delightful selection of unique sweets. In Northern Italy every holiday season Italians line up at the local pasticerria to buy panettone, the traditional Milanese cake-like bread so loved by Italians that they are willing to stand in line when they see the tall domed boxes appear in pastry shop windows. Commonly held legends as to its origin vary but one favorite story tells of a 15th century Christmas banquet given by Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. There was no dessert until a young kitchen helper named Toni baked up a sweet fruit-studded bread, thereby saving the meal and endowing the bread with its given name, panettone (bread of Toni). Descriptive and poetic yes but the realty may be less dramatic. Food historians credit the naming of this cake-like bread to the Italian word panetto meaning a small loaf of bread. Because the bread when baked increases in size to a cylindrical 12-15cm domed-shaped loaf. The Italian suffix –one (pronounced o-neh),which implies something bigger, was added changing the name to panettone.
Another Christmas food legend begins in Tuscany, in the medieval city of Siena set within a landscape of the burnt sienna of a Renaissance artist’s paint brush. A city whose piazza is breathtakingly beautiful and whose pasticerria are renown for a rich Tuscan specialty called paneforte where the flavors of fruit, honey and incensual spices collide to create a cake-like confection that dates to the 12th century. A chewy mix of fruit, nuts and spices that originally morphed from a pan pepato (spiced bread) to became a stronger verison (paneforte -strong bread). It was traditionally made by nuns from offerings brought back from the Holy Land and baked in a round pan lined with communion wafers. Now there are several versions including one named after Queen Margherita on the occasion of her visit to Siena in 1879. Lighter in color and more delicate in flavor, it is often dusted with confectioners’ sugar.