Panettone 2021

Panettone from Pasticceria Triestina Ulcigrai has arrived and it is as toothsome and fluffy as ever! We have been buying panettone from this fifth generation bakery for a number of years now through Leila’s Shop and are always pleased with its full flavour from the long fermentation time and beautifully prepared dried fruit.

A single delicious panettone sits on a wooden bench in front of an exposed brick wall

Preparation for our panettone began a few months ago when the fruit was mustered and sugared then reduced to a concoction we would think of as dried fruit and mixed peel. At Pasticceria Triestina Ulcigrai this is a mix of raisins, orange, and cedro.

The panettone dough starts with the sourdough starter – or in panettone language – the pasta madre. The pasta madre is a low-hydration mix of flour and water left to naturally ferment. The wild yeasts and bacteria, on the flour and in the air, prompt a spontaneous fermentation to occur. They chomp through the sugars and goodness of the flour, using the flour to reproduce, and in turn producing raising agents, this is what leavens the starter, making it puff up and get ready for action.

This sounds fairly straightforward but as with any naturally leavened bread the ratio of yeasts and bacteria is extremely important. With panettone the addition of eggs, butter, sugar, and fruit makes the control of the raising agents even more crucial. The dough must be super strong to stand up with all the inclusions but it mustn’t get too acidic along the way. Bakers have different ways of modifying the pasta madre, some include a bagnetto stage, where the pasta madre is soaked in a sugar water solution, raising the pH to a more acceptable level. Others soak in only water to leach out the acids, and others deal with this by reducing the inoculation percentage – the amount of pasta madre they use in the second build and final stages of dough. Each baker will have their own method and it will depend on their individual circumstances of their bakeries, their experience and their traditions.

Once the pasta madre is stable and predictable it is used to build a first stage dough. This will be left to ferment and grow stronger. The fermentation must be vigorous before the first dough is added to the last addition of flour and liquid. When this happens we are nearing the end of the dough building stage. It is complete when the full amount of panettone dough has been appropriately salted and has just enough strength and gluten development to muscle through the addition of butter, eggs, sugar, and fruit. These latter ingredients all serve to stall the fermentation and gluten development, and if the timing is wrong or the percentages out, the dough can be underdeveloped (it won’t rise, will be too dense and cake-like); or conversely overdeveloped (collapses on loading into the oven). We are walking a tightrope of baking nirvana here, and it is thrilling.

With the best bits added and the dough shaped into paper baskets, the panettone is scored and left for its final proof. There will be a point here where the dough is just right and is quickly loaded into the ovens. The scoring allows the dough room to rise in the oven, meaning the crumb has a direction to burst towards. The burst is controlled by the top of the dough being soft enough for long enough so that the dough can rise before the crust is fully set.

When the panettone are removed from the oven they are immediately spiked and flipped upside down. You’ll see the spike marks on the sides of the paper basket. They need to be flipped as the additions to the dough are so heavy and the air inside so light that they can collapse as soon as they start to cool. Like big loaded soufflés ready to embarrass the chef.

After they are cooled, they are checked over by the head baker and packed up ready for shipping. Outside of preparing the fruit, the whole process is a week’s worth of work. It’s intense. Panettone is often described as the Mt Everest of baking. And I think we all agree it is totally worth it! x