The Italian Panettone

Things you didn't know about this special festive dessert



Panettone is a dome-shaped, leavened bread of sweet, rich dough traditionally eaten at Christmas. This dessert originates from Milan, but nowadays it is present on the festive tables all over Italy and even abroad.

In order to make a panettone, you need experience, patience, a family recipe and a lot of time. Pastry shops have their own family secret recipes, that include butter, eggs, sugar and raisins as main ingredients.

traditional panettone

The origins

The true origin of panettone is to be found in the widespread custom in the Middle Ages of celebrating Christmas by eating a type of bread that is richer than everyday bread. In fact, a late fifteenth-century manuscript attests to the ducal custom of celebrating the so-called rite of the log.

On the evening of December 24, a large log of wood was placed in the fireplace and, at the same time, three large loaves of wheat were brought to the table. At that time wheat was precious, and was only used on rare occasions. The head of the family served a slice of it to all the members, saving one for the following year, as a sign of continuity.

Nowadays, Panettone is a similarly precious wheat bread eaten at Christmas. Even the Milanese tradition of saving it has survived.

In fact, according to a legend, San Biagio (St Blaise) saved a child who was choking on a fish bone by giving him a piece of bread. On the feast day held in his honour, 3 February, many people eat a slice of panettone that they saved from Christmas.

Typically, Italians buy panettoni as gifts, a tradition that dates back as long as the bread itself.

From the origins up until the early 20th Century, it was hard to find panettoni outside Milan.
Then came Angelo Motta.

When Motta opened his Milan bakery in 1919, panettone had the shape of a big loaf of bread. One day, a client placed a special order. He was a Russian émigré in Milan and he wanted 200 kulich (Russian Easter cakes) for a party. When Motta looked at the recipe he noticed something interesting: it was very similar to panettone. The main difference was that it was made in a tall, cylindrical tin. Motta created the mould for panettone by using a ring of paper to give the dough the vertical, dome shape that we see today.

Both Motta and his competitor Gioacchino Alemagna, who opened his own bakery in 1925, found a way to industrialise the process, and panettoni soon began to be shipped all over Italy and abroad.

The legends

There are also two legends on the origins of Panettone:

Messer Ulivo degli Atellani, a falconer, lived in Milan. He was in love with Algisa, the beautiful daughter of a baker, and in order to be closer to his beloved one, he had her father hired him. One day he tried to invent a dessert: with the best flour from the mill he kneaded eggs, butter, honey and raisins. Then he baked. It was an amazing success! Everyone wanted to taste the new bread and some time later the two young lovers got married and lived happily ever after.


The cook in the service of Ludovico il Moro was commissioned to prepare a sumptuous Christmas dinner to which many nobles had been invited. Unfortunately, he forgot the cake in the oven and couldn’t serve it. Given the chef’s desperation, Toni, a little scullery boy, proposed a solution: «With what is left in the pantry – a little flour, butter, eggs, cedar peel and some raisins – this morning I cooked this dessert. If you have nothing else, you can bring it to the table». The cook agreed. Surprisingly, the guests were enthusiastic about the new dessert! The Duke wanted to know its name, and the cook revealed the secret: “L’è ‘l pan del Toni” (it’s Toni’s bread). Since then it has been the “pane di Toni”, i.e. the “panettone”.


Have you already tried the Italian traditional panettone?



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