This Italian bread is so difficult to make that it’s called the Mount Everest of baking | more lifestyle | Hindustan Times
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This Italian bread is so difficult to make that it’s called the Mount Everest of baking

Panettone dough is wildly sensitive, demanding and occasionally infuriating, following its own unique logic and schedule. Built up in stages, it can’t be rushed or made to wait. It requires an investment of ingredients, a deep understanding of fermentation and attention to pH levels, along with constant attention.

more lifestyle Updated: Nov 29, 2017 13:39 IST
A loaf of Panettone, made by Avery Ruzicka, owner of Manresa Breads in Los Gatos, California.
A loaf of Panettone, made by Avery Ruzicka, owner of Manresa Breads in Los Gatos, California. (NYT)

To make panettone — traditional panettone, coaxed from a stiff, naturally leavened starter — is to embark on a long, expensive and unpredictable journey, risking disaster at every turn. Roy Shvartzapel, a baker in San Francisco, refers to this Italian bread as “the Mount Everest of baking.” “You’d be hard pressed to find a more challenging dough,” said Shvartzapel, 40, who owns the mail-order panettone business From Roy.

Panettone dough is wildly sensitive, demanding and occasionally infuriating, following its own unique logic and schedule. Built up in stages, it can’t be rushed or made to wait. It requires an investment of ingredients, a deep understanding of fermentation and attention to pH levels, along with constant attention.

Baker Avery Ruzicka with ingredients, including dark chocolate and candied orange peel, for a batch of panettone at Manresa Breads. (NYT)

Give it all that, and a panettone can still go wrong. Bakers from Los Gatos, California, to Pittsburgh say that’s exactly why they’re so obsessed with the high-maintenance dough: No bread is more difficult, or more rewarding, to get right.

A great panettone can be pulled apart with almost no effort into so many long, diaphanous strands that dissolve on the tongue. It is sweet, but not intensely so: more weightless than cake, with the softest, roundest, most delicate tang of sourdough. Stored properly, it will keep that way for a month.

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,” Lahey said, “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,” 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.

Dough for panettone bread. (NYT)

To make it, 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 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.

“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,” 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.

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

A recipe for bread pudding that uses panettone bread. (NYT)

Recipe:

Panettone Bread Pudding

Yield: 8 servings

Time: 10 minutes plus 1 hour baking

Ingredients:

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

6 to 8 slices (550 grams) panettone

6 eggs

1/3 cup (67 grams) sugar

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

4 cups whole milk

Confectioners’ sugar, to garnish

Preparation:

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees and butter a deep baking dish that will fit all the bread slices in a single layer, overlapping slightly, about 9 by 5 inches. Place the sliced panettone on a sheet pan and lightly toast it in the oven so that it’s still flexible, but dry to the touch, about 10 minutes. Arrange toast in the baking dish.

2. In a large mixing bowl, whisk the eggs with the sugar and salt, then add the milk and whisk until smooth. Pour through a fine-mesh strainer over the panettone, allowing the excess mixture to fill up the pan. Cover tightly with aluminum foil and bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until the bread has soaked up all the custard and puffed up, and the custard is no longer runny. Allow to cool at least 30 minutes before serving, then use a fine-mesh sieve to dust all over with confectioners’ sugar and serve.

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