With Thanksgiving behind us, week-long Black Friday deals (a recent trend in Italy) and the first real chill in the air, Italians are preparing psychologically (and their elastic waistband pants) for the Christmas eating extravaganza.
We’ve spoken extensively of the Christmas menus that––despite the compact size of the Italian peninsula––vary greatly from region to region. We’ve also talked about Santo Stefano boxing day and what to do with all those glorious leftovers. But we feel we haven’t spilled enough ink on the most heated debate during the holiday season: panettone or pandoro?
When it comes to traditional Italian Christmas cakes, the dilemma is real.
The most animated discussions at the Italian holiday table are not over sports or politics, nor at the gambling table (an Italian holiday must). Palates are mostly split between panettone lovers and pandoro lovers.
The panettone faction holds the Milanese domed specialty as the true traditional holiday cake, and finds pandoro to be too cloying and extravagant in its use of butter. Pandoro supporters, on the other hand, usually dislike raisins, candied orange, citron and lemon zest, which abound in panettone. The tall, eight-pointed star shaped Verona specialty, often dusted with powdered sugar, holds true to its name (pan d’oro means ‘golden bread’), with its bright yellow color, vanilla scent and pillowy, butter-rich dough.
Both Christmas cakes are a symbol of the opulent north and both were created for celebratory purposes long ago: panettone in the 15th century and pandoro in the 18th century, both initially enjoyed only by the local aristocracy. These cakes are not easy to make at home, hence the popularity of store-bought varieties. Panettone’s yeasty dough, in fact, requires 30 hours to make with proofing procedures similar to sourdough, rising and falling three times before being baked.
Italian bakers sell an astonishing 120 million Christmas cakes a year, but commercially produced pandoro and panettone range from subpar grocery store quality, to artisan jewels sold at 25 euro/kg, and everything in between. In recent years, ‘non-traditional’ fillings have become a thing, appealing to those who desire venturing beyond tradition. Creamy chocolate or jellied limoncello fillings, for example, are gaining traction. My favorite signature panettone, baked a popular artisan forno in Rome, is studded with odd pieces of dark chocolate and syrup-preserved pears.
Panettone and pandoro can be enjoyed in many ways, on their own at the end of the meal, dunked in cappuccino or with a dollop of Mascarpone cream on the side. Also, heated in the oven forming a fantastic crispy surface, or made into decadent French toast, crumbled as cake topping or bread pudding.
I used to be partial to pandoro, now with age and wisdom, I’ve learned to also appreciate panettone, provided it be made by an attentive craftsperson, using only fine quality ingredients.
What camp are you in, panettone or pandoro?*
*If you simply can’t decide, get both! You can find sensational panettone and pandoro in the U.S. at Gustiamo.
Eleonora Baldwin is a TV host, freelance food and travel writer, and culinary connoisseur based in Rome, Italy. Her writing appears in several food and travel publications. Her shows “ABCheese” and “Uazz’america” are broadcast on Italian food network Gambero Rosso Channel. Her podcast “iCheese” is recorded live on the Radio Food Live network.