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Move over, supermarket panettone—Milanese pastry chefs are reinventing Italy's traditional Christmas cake in delicious ways.

Pasticceria Cucchi is protective of its panettone. The Milanese pastry shop has been baking the famous fruitcake—a traditional Italian Christmas treat—in a humble kitchen for over 70 years. Laura Cucchi and her sister, Vittoria, whose grandparents founded the pasticceria in 1936, are thinking about expanding. But they fear that any change to the kitchen’s microclimate or production volume could upset il lievito madre, the revered mother yeast they use to make panettone. “It’s a very delicate decision,” Laura says.

Pasticceria Cucchi’s panettone is a deliciously far cry from the supermarket versions that emerge every holiday season in both Italy and the United States. It’s pillowy and sweet, laced with high-quality vanilla, raisins, and chunks of candied citrus—and so good the pasticceria makes it year-round. Customers might stop by the elegant shop on Corso Genova in Milan to eat a slice for breakfast or, on a warm summer night, order pangelà, a panettone-gelato sandwich, for dessert.

“Artisan panettone is completely different,” Laura says, “in the taste, in the perfume, in the satisfaction you get when you eat it.”

Panettone is thought to have originated in the 1400s as a wheat bread made for religious celebrations. Over the centuries, the bread evolved into a sweet cake that takes a painstaking 36 to 48 hours to make. It all begins with the mother yeast, which must be refreshed with flour and water three times a day, for much of the year. Bakers take a piece of the yeast and work it into a dough made from flour, egg yolks, butter, and sugar. (By Italian law, any cake labeled panettone must adhere to strict ratios of these ingredients as well as of raisins and candied fruits, which are added at the end.) Once the mixture is ready, it’s kneaded into a ball using a circular shaping technique called pirlatura. Finally, the dough is placed in a paper mold (known as a pirottino) that helps the cake achieve a tall, domed shape as it bakes. To prevent the finished panettone from collapsing, it is speared and hung upside down to cool. 

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The industrial panettone that most of us have come to know, and regift, grew out of a rivalry between two Milanese bakers, Angelo Motta and Gino Alemagna. “At the beginning of the 1950s, there was a panettone, either Motta or Alemagna, on every Italian Christmas table,” says Stanislao Porzio, author of Il Panettone, the most complete book on the subject. “The Italians divided their loyalties between the two companies as if they were choosing between two soccer teams.”

As the bakers’ reach expanded, quality suffered. Aside from the cakes made by a handful of stalwarts such as the Cucchis, factory panettone reigned—that is, until the early 2000s, when Italian pastry chefs began to embrace the classic cake once more, and to reinvent it. New versions from intrepid artisans now feature everything from regional nuts and berries to chocolate and limoncello cream. Luxury brands, including Prada and LVMH (the conglomerate behind such names as Louis Vuitton, Dior, and Marc Jacobs), have even acquired venerable Milanese pasticcerias that specialize in panettone. In addition to writing about the cake, Porzio has launched a festival, Re (or “King”) Panettone, to raise the standards of ingredients and expertise as well as discourage the use of preservatives and additives commonly found in mass-produced panettone.

“Panettone is like pizza,” Porzio says. “There is the original panettone, like there is the original pizza margherita, but now there are also many different tastes.”

3 More Places to Try Panettone in Milan

La Boutique del Dolce
Achille Zoia, sometimes called the “father of modern panettone” for his often-copied recipe that increases the amount of butter in the dough, makes a honey-infused cake flecked with cocoa, hazelnuts, almonds, and chocolate chips. —laboutiquedeldolce.it

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Pasticceria Busnelli
Founded by Teresio Busnelli, this pasticceria in the Arluno suburb practices an ancient method of yeast preparation known as in corda, handed down to Teresio’s son, Andrea. Using a 43-year-old starter dough named Gigi, Andrea makes classic and modern cakes, the latter including the Giallo Milano (Yellow Milan), made with all-yellow ingredients (saffron, candied lemon, ginger) in a nod to both the color of Milan’s old homes and the city’s famous saffron risotto. —pasticceriabusnelli.it  

Pasticceria Martesana Milano
In a modern space that contrasts with the black-and-white wall photos depicting midcentury panettone production, try Enzo Santoro’s panettone with chocolate and ginger, or a version with pineapple and pine nuts. —martesanamilano.com

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