Panettone Has Become an Obsession for American Bakers

Jim Lahey started selling panettone at Sullivan Street Bakery, in New York, in 1996. This year’s batch is full of rum-plumped raisins and candied citron, or dark chocolate and dried sour cherries. “Panettone is this high art for the world of bread,” said Mr. Lahey, “because there’s an enormous amount of technique in making it.”

He includes a recipe for it in his book, “The Sullivan Street Bakery Cookbook,” written with Maya Joseph. Adapted for the home baker, the recipe includes less sugar than the version sold at the bakery, which means it doesn’t require a complex panettone-specific starter. “If made correctly, if all the conditions are correct post-baking, I once had a panettone last eight months without molding or spoilage,” Mr. Lahey said.

Rick Easton, 41, who used to run Bread and Salt, a bakery in Pittsburgh, calls panettone “a crazy magic trick.” He will sell his version this December at Superiority Burger, in Manhattan.

To make it, Mr. Easton buys butter from Normandy, or prepares his own cultured butter, and tracks down organic wine grapes to make his own raisins. He has cared for his lievito madre, the Italian-style starter he uses to make the bread, for several years.

Most of Mr. Easton’s panettone will be jeweled with citrus peel and homemade raisins, but a few will be more experimental, shot through with pieces of candied pumpkin, or candied quince and almonds.

Ms. Ruzicka is baking panettone for the first time this year. Credit Jason Henry for The New York Times

“Here is this thing that’s incredibly rich, decadent, indulgent, but it’s impossibly light,” he said. “That’s the greatest thing about a panettone, the thing you’re reaching for as a baker: that texture.”

Panettone has its roots as a regional specialty in Milan, a luxury bread made for the holidays with an obsessive level of attention to technique and ingredients. Though it may date back, in an earlier incarnation, to the Middle Ages, it wasn’t until the 20th century that panettone became so widely consumed across the rest of Italy, then internationally.

“The industrialization of bread-making made panettone available to a much broader spectrum of the population,” Mr. Easton said. It fundamentally changed the bread, too.

The same boxed, mass-produced versions that made panettone famous, and that took it from being a rare luxury item to one anyone could buy, gave it a reputation as nothing more than a parched, heavily perfumed sponge.

Mr. Shvartzapel thought of panettone that way until about a decade ago, when he tasted one made in the artisanal Italian tradition, in Paris. “It had this melting, cotton-candy type quality,” he recalled. “It was a texture I’d never experienced in a baked good before.”

Mr. Shvartzapel later learned how to achieve that flossy quality from the Italian baker Iginio Massari, outside Milan.

Panettone has its roots as a regional specialty in Milan. Here, a display at D. Coluccio & Sons in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Credit An Rong Xu for The New York Times

Mr. Shvartzapel began by making small batches of panettone, sometimes using other people’s kitchens, wrapping up the loaves at his apartment in Healdsburg, Calif., and loading them into the trunk of his car to sell locally. Back then, Mr. Shvartzapel was still testing his theory that Americans would pay $ 50 for his panettone. (They would.)

“Outside of the United States, panettone is a multibillion-dollar market,” he said. “Why not here?”

As the market for luxury panettone grows, Mr. Shvartzapel has partnered with the founders of La Boulangerie, a commercial bakery brand with cafes in San Francisco. This past month, he moved his production into La Boulangerie’s 40,000 square-foot commissary kitchen in South San Francisco, where he says he can produce up to 10 times more bread for his mail-order business. And his panettone will soon be available at Williams Sonoma stores in the Bay Area.

Avery Ruzicka, 33, who owns Manresa Bread in Los Gatos and Los Altos, is one of many American bakers who became intrigued by traditional panettone after trying Mr. Shvartzapel’s.

“I’ve never been to Italy,” she said, “but I learned on my feet.”

This year, baking it for the first time, Ms. Ruzicka studied recipes and referenced the photos that bakers shared on Instagram of their unctuous, seething doughs. She sent Mr. Shvartzapel, a friend, the occasional message to help troubleshoot.

“If you mess up a panettone, it’s gone,” she said. “You can’t save it. It just all goes in the garbage.” And Ms. Ruzicka found, as all bakers do, that there is a near-infinite number of ways to mess it up.

To make panettone — the traditional version, coaxed from a stiff, naturally leavened starter — is to embark on a long, expensive and unpredictable journey, risking disaster at every turn. Credit Jason Henry for The New York Times

The starter, the emulsion, the fermentation, the timing, the temperature. Even the mixing, which sounded straightforward enough, had its pitfalls. (To avoid excess friction, and keep the temperature low, Mr. Shvartzapel uses a diving-arm mixer imported from Italy, which can mimic the gentleness of hand-mixing.)

Ms. Ruzicka once used butter that was a couple of degrees too warm, and the dough turned to mush. She pulled a panettone out of the oven a few minutes early, and it slipped right out of its mold, deflating. One time, just a smidgen over-fermented, a whole batch collapsed because the yeast had grown too acidic.

“Bread-making is always mystical and exciting, but panettone more so than anything else,” she said.

With some practice, Ms. Ruzicka got it just right: Proofed almost to its breaking point, emulsified with an exorbitant amount of fat, the wet, shiny, comically stretchy dough vaulted up into glorious golden domes, as it had done for so many bakers before her, creating a magnificent structure that would reveal itself after the bread was cooled, upside down, to preserve its fragile, chaotic matrix of bubbles.

Ms. Ruzicka will ship a few hundred loaves of her panettone, flecked with dark chocolate and candied orange peel, via her bakery’s website, but only through December.

“It melts in your mouth and it’s suddenly gone,” she said. “And then you want to eat more.” NYT > Food