Panettone Guide: Tips for Buying and Serving

Panettone: What To Know About This Italian Holiday Treat

“Celebrating with panettone is one of the ways Italians bring a sense of joy and love around the table with family and friends,” says Chef Vincenzo Giangiordano, an Abruzzese now cooking at Terza Ristorante in Rochester, Minnesota.

“Like so many other Italian traditions, enjoying panettone is a special treasure reserved just for the holiday season,” he says.

The golden-colored bread is typically eaten after dinner on Christmas Eve or on Christmas morning. (On Easter Day, you’ll find Colomba Easter Bread, pane di Pasqua, at dinner tables across Italy, bread baked in the shape of a dove.)

According to legend, panettone is said to be a harbinger of luck and prosperity. 

The best time to buy panettone is anytime before Christmas. Many bakeries in Italy begin cranking up their ovens in September to make this aromatic, golden holiday treat.  

The soaring popularity of panettone

Eataly private-lable panetonni; the third bread from the left is pandoro
Eataly private-lable panetonni; the third bread from the left is pandoro (credit: Eataly)

Like so many other Italian products and traditions, panettone was born in Italy and migrated to the U.S., Canada, and South America with successive waves of Italian immigrants. Since then, the popularity of panettone among Italians and non-Italians has soared around the world. 

Pastry trade group Conpait estimated annual panettone sales (artisanal and commercial) in 2022 at $ 650 million, according to a report in The New York Times.

In addition to being eaten at home, beautifully packaged panettone and pandoro are classic Christmas gifts purchased for friends, neighbors, relatives and colleagues.

What is panettone?

Beautifully wrapped Albertengo Panettone available from igourmet
Beautifully wrapped Abertengo Panettone 

Panettone is a sweet, cake-like, tall cupola-shaped bread that makes the perfect dessert for a Christmas or New Year’s dinner, often served with coffee or sweet or sparkling wine like Prosecco. (Sometimes, Americans compare it to fruitcake but we think it’s like comparing apples to oranges!) When Chef Vincenzo serves panettone as dessert, he plates a slice of the bread with sweet creme anglaise. 

It’s also a popular breakfast indulgence on the mornings after the holidays until no more is left for consumption. And if any is left over, it’s the ideal bread for making delicious French toast. 

The term panettone is derived from the Italian panetto (little loaf). Tacking on the suffix “-one” makes the little loaf into the larger panettone. Sometimes, it is called pan del ton or “big bread” in Italian; many English speakers call it “Christmas Cake.”  

Although the precise size of a panettone varies from baker to baker, most panettone are large enough for 12 portions. (The less often used plural form of panettone is panettoni.)

Panettone’s Christmas cousin, pandoro, is star-shaped and dusted with icing sugar that resembles the Italian Alps.

Is panettone a bread or a cake?

Because of its sweetness, panettone is variously called a bread OR a cake but most experts place it in the category of a bread.

“Panettone is an enriched bread, made of a dough with natural yeast and rich ingredients,” says chef Vincenzo.

Why are there so many different kinds of panettone?

Olivieri 1882 Classico available from Goldbelly
Olivieri 1882 Classico available from Goldbelly

Essentially, there is a panettone to please almost every palate and pocketbook.

Although the panettone tradition began in Milan (in the region of Lombardy), the breads are now made in every region from north to south. According to Tasting Italy: A Culinary Journey, two rival bakers, Gioacchino Alemagna and Angelo Motta, were the first to produce the bread in large quantities. The two brands are still produced today in Verona under the Bauli label. 

In Italy, foods and breads tend to differ from region to region and even from town to town. The same is true for panettone.

Many bakers use Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) products or put an innovative spin on the classic by substituting ingredients tied to a specific geographical area. For instance, you’ll find panettone made with Amarena cherries from Emilia Romagna, pistachio cream from Sicily, lemons from Sorrento, and even balsamic vinegar from Modena. The breads from the south tend to be glazed with sugar or some other sweet.

Many bakers also add chocolate chips or Nutella to the batter to appease sweet tooths. 

What is the difference between artisanal and commercial panettone?

Panettoni cooling after baking so they don't cave in.
Panettoni cooling after baking so they don’t cave in.

Inexpensive, commercial panettone is ubiquitous in American supermarkets during the holiday season. Many of them are overly fluffy and filled with preservatives and emulsifiers.

An artisanal panettone is made the traditional way using high-quality local ingredients and is baked in a heavy paper baking mold with tall sides. The bread is cooled upside down after baking so it doesn’t collapse.

How can you tell a good panettone from an ordinary one?

An article published in The Guardian posed the question to several chefs. Their thoughts:

  • The panettone should fit properly its paper casing.
  • It should taste sweet but not overly sweet.
  • It should taste light and creamy rather than dry.
  • It should smell of natural aromas rather than artificial ones.

Why is panettone so expensive?

Artisinal panettone tends to be more expensive than other baked Italian products for several reasons. Chef Vincenzo explains:

  • The process of making the bread is time-consuming, beginning with a starter culture called lievito madre. 
  • The ingredients used to make a panettone (butter, eggs, extra yolks, vanilla, and candied fruit) are expensive, and
  • Elegant tins, wrappings, and ribbons add to the cost.
  • When people from abroad order panettone from Italy, they will also incur shipping costs. Most panettoni weigh 1 kilo (2.2 pounds).

How do you slice a panettone?

Fiasconaro Mandorlet Panettone from SupermarketItaly.com
Fiasconaro Mandorlet Panettone with almonds from SupermarketItaly.com

The size and domed shape of a panettone can make cutting it a bit daunting.

You can try to cut triangular slices the same way as you would a cake. But some people prefer to cut the bread into two halves and then divide each half into rectangular pieces.

Whichever method you choose, a serrated knife will make the job easier.

What is the best way to keep panettone fresh?

While panettone has a long shelf life and is likely to last for four weeks or more, Chef Vincenzo advises that the best way to preserve the bread’s freshness is to store it in its original bag or tin. Although the bread should be kept in a cool, dry place, it doesn’t need refrigeration.

Even when it’s past its prime, the brioche-like bread can also be enjoyed toasted and drizzled with butter or honey, or made into French toast or bread pudding.

What about shopping for panettone?

Fiasconaro Tradizionale panettone from SupermarketItaly.com
Fiasconaro Tradizionale panettone from SupermarketItaly.com

Many artisanal producers only bake limited quantities for the holidays so it’s prudent to order early and allow time for delivery. 

Because shipping can be costly, try to take advantage of free shipping deals. 

If you are fortunate, you may find an artisanal producer of panettone close to home. 

  • For example, Eataly, the global Italian superstore, launched its own private-label line of panettone and pandoro, sold in their stores and online.
  • In Brooklyn, New York, family-run bakery Settepani sells its products at the store; they are also available nationwide on Goldbelly.
  • And Chef Vincenzo, who has a hard time finding authentic panettone in Minnesota, orders his panettone from the female-owned Tasty Ribbon in New York.

Recipe for Leftover Panettone Bread Pudding

Chef VIncenzo's elegant bread pudding
Chef VIncenzo’s elegant bread pudding

Chef Vicenzo graciously shared his recipe for Panettone Bread Pudding featured in the book authored by his wife, Sheryl Ness, Love in a Tuscan Kitchen: Savoring Life Through the Romance, Recipes, and Traditions of Italy

How did I connect with Chef Vicenzo? I was fortunate to meet his wife; read the story of our chance meeting.  

Yield: 10-12 servings

Panettone Bread Pudding

Chef Vincenzo's Panettone Bread Pudding

While it can be challenging for a novice to bake panettone from scratch, Panettone Bread Pudding is a great way to use leftovers.

Ingredients

  • 6-8 large slices panettone – cut into cubes (around ½ inch) – about 6 cups of bread cubes total
  • 4 eggs
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 3 cups whole milk (or almond milk)
  • ½ cup (150 g) sugar
  • 2 tablespoons vanilla
  • 2 ounces brandy or Grand Marnier
  • 4 tablespoons orange marmalade
  • ¼ cup dark chocolate chips
  • ¼ cup chopped or slivered almonds

Instructions

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees
  • Spray a 9x13 pan or 2 round 9-inch cake pans with spray oil or coat with butter. 
  • Cut the panettone into small cubes and place them in the pan. 
  • Place the eggs, heavy cream, milk, and sugar in a mixing bowl and mix together with a whisk. 
  • Add the vanilla and brandy to the custard mixture and incorporate well.
  • Pour the custard over the panettone so that it covers all of the bread. 
  • Let sit for 30 minutes.
  • Spoon the orange marmalade over the top of the custard.
  • Sprinkle the dark chocolate chips and almonds over the top.
  • Bake for 55 minutes.

To finish, dust with powdered sugar and serve warm with vanilla ice cream or gelato.


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2023 Best Ways To Order Italian Panettone Online 

Supermarket Italy Holly Jolly Holiday Gift Basket
Supermarket Italy Holly Jolly Holiday Gift Basket

Because it is difficult and time-consuming to make, most Italians purchase it from their local bakery or pasticceria. As I mentioned before, there is likely a panettone that will please any food lover or Italophile. You can order the breads individually online or sometimes as part of a basket of Italian sweets. For example, the very well-priced Holly Jolly Gift Basket from Supermarket Italy includes a Fiasconarao panettone.

EATALY

Eataly sells its own private-label line of panettone and also sells more than 40 different imported artisanal panettoni.

GOLDBELLY

Goldbelly sells a number of different brands, including Olivieri 1882 and Settepani. 

IGOURMET

iGourmet sells a wide variety of traditional panettone breads from Albertengo and Chiostro.

SUPERMARKET ITALY

Supermarket Italy sells Fiasconaro Tradizionale Panettone from a famous bakery in Castelbuono, Sicily. 

Tip for Bargain Hunters

Soon after the New Year, many online specialty shops discount the year’s panettoni. If you are a panettone lover, it’s a good time to stock up on these delicious treats for snacks or breakfasts.

Many have long shelf-lives. Want it to last even longer? If you wrap the panettone in plastic wrap and then foil; it can keep fresh for up to 2-3 months.


Heading to Rome for the holidays? Here’s where to find the best panettone in Rome.


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Ultimate Panettone Buying Guide


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