Panettone has a deep history and millions of the distinctive pastry are made in Italy prior to Christmas Eve. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

Home and commercial bakers turn out a plethora of sweet treats for Christmas. It’s tradition. But early on, the timing had to do with economics.

Several culinary historians note that sweets were once only savored during feasts and holy times because of expensive ingredients. Despite costs, every culture around the world has developed its preferred holiday baked goods.

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Panettone is an Italian bread that is made for the Christmas feast. Millions are sold in Italy before Christmas Eve. The slightly sweet yeast bread filled with dried or candied fruit and baked into a distinct cylinder shape is favored worldwide and has a long history.

Milan is where it first became popular, and Italian immigrants brought the recipe to South America. In fact, Pope Francis, an Argentine whose Italian parents emigrated from Italy, reportedly gives panettone as Christmas gifts.

Today, panettone is sold in all sorts of stores in America. But don’t be fooled. Those mass-produced versions taste nothing like the original Italian pastry from the artisanal bakeries of Milan.

The authentic recipe is a multiday process requiring specific ingredients. The result is a moist, fluffy, slightly sour-sweet bread dotted with plenty of quality fruit and topped with simple decoration. It is fragrant, buttery and delectable.

I adapted a recipe from King Arthur Flour to make a two-day version of panettone that is exceedingly better than any mass-produced variety. If you plan to bake it, read the notes first. There are some particular ingredients to order.

Buon Natale!

CHRISTMAS PANETTONE
Day of bake time: Prep: 30 mins; total rise: 3 hours; bake: 40-50 minutes
Makes 1 large bread

Ingredients
Starter
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon instant yeast
1/2 cup cool water

Dough
All of the starter
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon instant yeast
1/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup lukewarm whole milk
8 tablespoons butter at room temperature
2 large eggs
2 egg yolks
1 teaspoon Fiori di Sicilia extract (see notes)

Fruits
2 tablespoons citrus zest (orange or a mix of orange and lemon)
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup dried cherries
1/2 cup diced dried apricots
1/2 cup diced candied orange peel (see notes)

Egg wash and decoration
1 large egg
1 tablespoon water
Pearl sugar (see notes)

Instructions
Make the starter (step 1) the night before.

Step 1
Mix the starter ingredients together in a medium bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let rest on counter overnight, 8-12 hours.

Step 2
In the morning, combine starter with all other dough ingredients except for the citrus zest and dried fruits. Using a stand mixer with a dough hook, mix and then knead ingredients together at low speed until a smooth, slightly sticky dough forms.

Step 3
Leave dough in mixing bowl, cover with plastic wrap and a towel and leave it to rise for about 2 hours until puffy and double in size.

Step 4
Grease a work surface with a little butter. Deflate the dough and transfer to work surface. Form dough into a flat, rough square. Scatter the dried fruits and citrus zest on the dough, then gently fold and knead dough by hand to thoroughly distribute the fruit.

Shape the dough into a ball and place in a paper panettone mold. Place the mold on a cookie sheet. Let dough rise at room temperature for 1 hour or until it crests the rim of the mold.

Step 5
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Beat one egg with one tablespoon of water. Gently brush egg wash over top of panettone and then sprinkle sugar pearls all over the dome.

Step 6
Bake the bread for 10 minutes in preheated oven, then reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake for 30-40 minutes. Tent a piece of foil over bread during last 10-15 minutes of baking to prevent top from burning.

Step 7
Remove from oven and cool completely. Slice in wedges and serve. Panettone stored in an airtight container at room temperature will keep for up to a week.

Notes: Purchase paper panettone molds and pearl sugar online through King Arthur Flour. Fiori di Sicilia extract is a unique blend of citrus and vanilla flavors with floral notes. A quality Fiori di Sicilia is sold by King Arthur Flour. An excellent source for candied orange peel is Olive Nation at www.olivenation.com.

(Recipe adapted from King Arthur Flour’s “Overnight Panettone.”)