Tag Archives: American

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

A Golden Age for American Whiskey Writers


The whiskey writers, from left, Heather Greene, Noah Rothbaum, Fred Minnick, Lew Bryson, Liza Weisstuch and Clay Risen. Credit Cole Wilson for The New York Times

If you haven’t been to a liquor store in a while, you may be surprised to find the shelves of whiskey groaning with American bottles. Now the same transformation is playing out at the bookstore.

Soaring consumer interest in American whiskeys over the last decade has created a symbiotic cottage industry in writing about those spirits. Unlike almost any other spirits (Scotch is a notable exception), bourbon and rye and other American whiskeys have been taken up by many writers as their primary — and sometimes only — topic.

“I liken covering American whiskey to covering sports,” said Fred Minnick, who writes about whiskey full time and is the author of three books on the subject. “Sports teams have these very rabid fans. Bourbon fans are the same way. They want to know every single thing.”

And so, book after book on the subject has been published in the last few years. They include Mr. Minnick’s “Bourbon: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of an American Whiskey”; “Tasting Whiskey: An Insider’s Guide to the Unique Pleasures of the World’s Finest Spirits” by Lew Bryson; “American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye: A Guide to the Nation’s Favorite Spirit” by Clay Risen; “The Art of American Whiskey: A Visual History of the Nation’s Most Storied Spirit, Through 100 Iconic Labels” by Noah Rothbaum; and “Whiskey Distilled: A Populist Guide to the Water of Life” by Heather Greene.

Opportunities to write about American whiskey have grown well beyond trade journals like Whisky Advocate. Mr. Risen, for example, has written for The Atlantic, Men’s Journal, Fortune, Garden & Gun and The New York Times, where he is the deputy Op-Ed editor.

Though Mr. Risen also writes about other subjects, he describes himself as a whiskey writer as often as not. It’s a beat that has taken off only in the last 15 years. Sales of bourbon and its close cousin, Tennessee whiskey, have exploded in the United States, to more than 20 million nine-liter cases in 2015 from just over 13 million in 2002, according to the Distilled Spirits Council.

“When I started, there was really one person who had a sole focus on American whiskey,” Mr. Minnick said. “That was Chuck Cowdery.”

A former advertising man who worked for bourbon distillers, Mr. Cowdery is widely considered the dean of American whiskey journalism. He writes a well-read and highly opinionated whiskey blog.

None of these journalists worry about running out of copy.

“American whiskey is complex,” Mr. Minnick said. “Every day there is someone acquiring a little guy, or there is a lawsuit. From that side of things, there’s a lot of drama. If you have drama, you have something to write about.”

The very circumscribed nature of American whiskey lends itself to exacting reportage, Mr. Bryson said.

“The problem with writing about rum is there’s no regulation, and it changes and does whatever it wants,” Mr. Bryson said. “But whiskey is quite regulated, and there is a lot more expectation there from the drinkers. You can make predictions and statements about it.”

Bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States, but by legal definition it must be made from a grain bill composed of no less that 51 percent corn, and it must be aged in new, charred-oak barrels. Similarly, rye whiskey must be made of no less that 51 percent rye.

Liza Weisstuch, a journalist who has covered whiskey for a decade, likened the spirit to wine in its headline-generating potential. “It’s a huge category with lots of players that has a massive popular appeal,” Ms. Weisstuch said. “So many people want to understand it all but often don’t know where or how to start asking questions.”

With so many writers on the trail of the same stories, you may expect some backbiting. But most journalists describe their interactions with the same word: “congenial.” Within reason, of course.

“I see it as akin to the bourbon distillers down in Kentucky,” said Mr. Rothbaum, who is also the drink and food senior editor at The Daily Beast. “They’re all friendly, which is not to say people aren’t competitive.”

Whether the public’s thirst for this much American whiskey literature is sustainable remains an open question. Ms. Weisstuch said she thinks it is, though she also writes about Scotch. Mr. Minnick’s next book will be about rum, and Ms. Greene’s will be about all spirits.

“At this point,” Ms. Greene said, “it would feel a bit like dancing on the head of a pin, sticking to this one subject.”

NYT > Food