Christmas just wouldn't be Christmas in Italy without the annual arrival of festive panettone pyramids in supermarkets and shiny ribboned edible packages in Italian shops and homes up and down the country.
Panettone, the light brioche-style cake, big enough to feed the largest of families, comes in many different forms, from the classic, studded with candied fruit in its home town of Milan to aromatic and citrussy editions in southern Sicily and chocolatey notes in Naples.
However, outside of Italy, panettone hasn't always had such a good press. The Guardian once, referring it as the "monstrous" Italian cake, when inferior models didn't spread the same love for an Italian treat. However, those days are over, and authentic Italian flavours and specialised shops like Eataly, are spreading the thrill of artisanal Italian food further, and panettone is back to be embraced.
So, if you've ever been subjected to a dry, lacklustre and altogether disappointing type of panettone, you've been missing out on the real deal, and the seasonal treat that fuels a national obsession.
Armed with these beginner's tips, and you'll soon embrace the panettone, getting excited about its annual arrival, instead of dreading it! Or, you could always try making your own with our traditional panettone recipe.
10 Tips to choosing the perfect panettone
Accademia Marchesi di Milano has drawn up a set of guidelines to evaluate the characteristics of the perfect panettone, which we share below.
Appearance counts. A panettone should be so good looking and enticing that you can't wait to tuck in.
The crust should be cohesive with the dough, not coming away, about 2.5 mm with a golden brown colour and unscorched.
The honeycomb of a "perfect" panettone must be uniform and well developed. If it's not excessively blistered with large air pockets, the panettone should remain fresh for longer: the more air inside, the more it dries out which is why industrial panettone has small holes inside (to last longer).
The number, size and density of the candied fruit is also a symptom of quality.
Freshness of the ingredients can be perceived in the nose. Asking yourself if the aroma is natural and perfumed is a good indicator of quality.
Every single ingredient in a panettone should be of the best quality. Read the labels to discover the authenticity of the ingredients.
The expiration date is another determining factor: the shorter the shelf life, the more you can be sure that the panettone doesn't include preservatives.
There are a number of sensorial components (starting from those made by the yeast, up to those generated by cooking) which yield a remarkable roundness. The longer the production time, the more time the tertiary aromas have to develop. Respecting the rest time during production gives balance and hydration in the finished panettone.
5. Elegance and Finesse
The quantity and distribution of the aromatic components (candied fruit, raisins, vanilla) determines the elegance of the final taste.
The rise and the consistency of the centre of the panettone confirm good workmanship.
The importance of flour, the dosage of butter and sugar - Tasting should not include a piece but the whole slice of panettone, which includes different parts with different textures of the entire cake.
Tear a piece or a slice from the centre, which must 'pull free" without breaking.
In the mouth, the soft structure should melt not become rubbery, which reflects some of the production process: for example, the use of quality flours and their ability to incorporate fats. At this point, the overall structure of the product emerges.
Assessing the Taste
The relationship between tastes is fundamental: sweet, salty, sour and bitter must be in perfect balance.
Panettone as a whole
9. All the attributes
Finally, evaluate the experience as a whole. The perfect balance between what you see, smell, touch, and taste is an infallible indicator of a quality product that promises to deliver.
The perfect balance between flavours and overall coherence increases the memorability of the taste. If a panettone gets all this right, you're sure to buy it again as you'll remember how delicious it was!