How to make the perfect panettone
What is the secret to making the perfect panettone? Time Out visits Exeter Street Bakery to discover that the proof is in the proving
Panettone. The word conjures up scented images of celebration and jewel-studded Italian largesse. So it’s incongruous that my quest to make it has led me to the unprepossessing environs of an industrial estate in Park Royal, surely one of London’s most misleadingly named areas.
Very few Londoners make their own panettone. I asked various Italian friends, hoping they’d be able to pass on ancient family recipes, but in the words of one, who didn’t quite get the point: ‘Why don’t you just buy one? It’s much simpler.’ The majority of restaurants, supermarkets and Italian delis import their panettone from Italy. One deli put me in touch with a lovely retired lady, Carmen, who couldn’t give a lesson as she was about to go into hospital but sent a hand-written recipe by post instead. Loison, the luxury brand, sent boxes of delicious cakes and reams of literature detailing incredibly complex-looking production methods. But I wanted something more hands-on. Finally, an Italian waiter at my local café helped me strike gold. Exeter Street Bakery makes its own panettone and, what’s more, was happy to let me in on the secret. Bingo.
There are two legends behind the origins of panettone. One has it that a fifteenth-century nobleman falconer fell in love with the daughter of a poor baker called Toni. To help out the baker when he fell on hard times, the falconer added eggs, butter, raisins and citrus peel to the bread dough. The pudding – ‘pan de Toni’ – was a great success and they all lived happily ever after. The other involves a despotic duke, a terrified chef who’d burned the pudding and a kitchen boy called Toni, who had a brainwave and added the eggs, butter, raisins and peel to the bread dough.
Lucy flanked by two of Habib's staff
Mysteries of the yeastBack in Park Royal, I’m introduced to the intriguing workings of an industrial bakery. The bread oven is like a huge beast, its steel jaws opening to gobble up great slabs of dough. In the corner is a large vat of gently pulsating three-year-old mother yeast, which is ‘fed’ by the daily addition of flour. Although Exeter Street is run by Italians, most of the workers in the bakery are Poles. The head chef, Habib, who studied at the National Bakery School at South Bank University, is French. The panettone – mini ones, to be sold at the Exeter Street shop (1b Argyll Rd, W8 7DB, 020 7937 8484, www.exeterstreetbakery.co.uk) and Marylebone Farmers’ Market (Cramer St car park, W1U 4EZ, www.lfm.org.uk/mary.asp) 10am-2pm on Sundays – are made late at night, to ensure they’ll be fresh in the morning. Habib will make one batch by machine, as he usually does, and another by hand, so I can see how easy it would be to copy in a domestic kitchen.The first stage involves mixing the flour, yeast, eggs, salt and milk until they become a cohesive dough, then kneading it for five to ten minutes. Doing it by hand, rather than machine, doesn’t yield a perfect-looking ball of dough, but there’s no big secret – it’s exactly like kneading bread dough (which at this stage it is). According to Habib, the easiest way to do this at home is to use the dough hook on a food processor.
The panettone mixture
Take your timeNow the dough needs to be covered and left somewhere warm to prove for an hour. Exeter Street doesn’t use provers (which artificially speed up the process), says Habib, because ‘bread is about time – like cheese, like wine, like anything. It takes longer, it tastes better.’While we’re waiting for the dough to prove, I ask Habib about recipes using panettone – I’ve seen all sorts, from bread-and-butter pudding to toasting slices of the cake and sandwiching them with homemade cinnamon ice-cream. Habib is dismissive. ‘Just cut it in four, spread it with apricot jam and dip it in your coffee. It needs nothing more,’ he says. After an hour of waiting the dough is ready. It has expanded but also, as Habib says, ‘it’s softer, like a sponge.’ During the second stage we mix in the egg yolks, sugar, vanilla essence and butter. Sometimes orange flower water is added, says Habib, but it can be overkill with the orange peel. This stage is a lot harder if you’re doing it by hand – it takes longer to incorporate the butter, and it doesn’t seem likely that the sludgy, oily mess is ever going to resemble dough again. The machine-made dough, meanwhile, sits smugly glistening in all its elastic, domed splendour. Habib takes over and finally the handmade dough is ready to knead again. This time the kneading is easier, as the dough is so much softer.
The finished article
We let the dough prove for another hour or so. ‘This is why people don’t make it at home,’ says Habib. ‘It’s too much hassle.’ Now you can actually feel the dough moving – it almost feels like it’s fizzing under your fingertips. The final stage is to mix in the raisins and candied orange peel. Habib says to do this carefully, as you don’t want the raisins to break up and leach their sugar into the dough, which would change its texture. Another half-hour’s proving, and the dough is ready to be sectioned off – each portion weighs between 120 and 130 grams – and rolled into balls, which is harder than it looks. Habib’s are perfect little spheres; mine asymmetrical, seamed blobs. They go into cylindrical paper cases roughly twice their height – after yet another half-hour’s proving, they should rise (or ‘jump’ as Habib puts it) to the height of the case.
An egg wash, a scattering of flaked almonds, and the panettone are ready to go in the oven. Twenty-five minutes later they come out – risen, golden and wafting wonderful citrus and vanilla smells. Eaten warm, they are sublime – light and buttery, you can taste every ingredient. It’s easy to see why Habib is dismissive of fiddling about with recipes – straight from the oven, a panettone needs no embellishment whatsoever.
All you knead is love...
Piece of cakeHow to create your own Panettone Milano (makes 35)1.2kg plain flour1tbsp salt40g dry yeast360ml milk6 whole eggs6 egg yolkshalf tsp vanilla essence250g caster sugar500g unsalted butter, at room temp500g raisins350g orange (or mixed) peel1 Preheat overn to 180C. Mix together the flour, salt, yeast, milk and eggs. When thoroughly combined, knead on a floured surface for five to ten minutes. Sprinkle with flour and leave, covered, in a warm place for 30 mins.2 Add the egg yolks, vanilla essence and sugar, and mix to a soft dough. Work in the butter and beat for five to eight minutes until smooth and elastic. Place in a lightly oiled bowl, cover and leave to rise in a slightly warm place for about an hour until doubles in size.3 Knock back the dough and gently knead in the peel and raisins. Cover and leave to prove for half an hour, then break off 120-130g pieces and roll into balls. Put the balls into mini panettone cases and leave to prove for 20 minutes. Brush with egg wash, sprinkle with flaked almonds and put into the oven to bake for 25 minutes.