Magazine article The Spectator

Best for Giving

Magazine article The Spectator

Best for Giving

Article excerpt

Have you made your Christmas provisions list yet? Chestnuts, check; brandy for lighting the pudding, check; Stilton, check; selection boxes for the kiddies, check; panettone . . . what's that all about?

It would appear that the jumbo Italian sort of cake (it's actually a form of bread; the name translates as 'big bread') is now as essential to the British Christmas as those boxes of sticky, glossy dates nestling on a paper doily along a plastic twig - and as baffling in its appeal. But in every deli, supermarket and mini-market across the land, teetering piles of the things, in their awkwardly tapering cardboard boxes, have shouldered their bulky way into the aisles of seasonal comestibles.

But what are they? Where do they come from? What are you supposed to do with them? And does anyone actually like them? Created in Milan, so legend has it, by a lovesick baker called Antonio as a tribute to his inamorata, a panettone is a domed mound of chewy dough with a tough brown crust, shot through with bullets of candied fruit. Weighing in at more than 2 lbs, it is created by a complicated recipe that involves seven separate kneading and rising procedures (so don't even think about coming over all domestic goddess and trying to bake your own). This process is supposed to make the panettone, according to what it says on the packet mine came in, 'morbido' (son), 'soffice' (soft, again) and of an 'inimitable lightness'.

Except it isn't. After the initial delicious aroma of vanilla when you get it out of the plastic wrapping, eating it is a huge let-down. It's dry and chewy - and there's far too much of it. How can the Italians, in most other respects geniuses of the table, stomach it?

'The Italians buy the best possible brands they can get their hands on,' explains my friend Valentina Harris, a broadcaster and writer on Italian food. 'It's seasonal - they only make it at this time of year - so it must be fresh. What is funny is their habit of giving them as Christmas presents - everyone does it; you usually end up getting yours back.'

And then? 'You can pour liqueur on it, scoop out the middle and fill it with zabaglione, or with ice-cream and freeze it as a torta gelata. Or have it for breakfast dunked in a big bowl of caffe latte. I particularly like it toasted and spread with cold apricot jam. It's a many-varied thing.' Sounds to me as though even the Italians are a bit stumped about exactly how to use it up and clear valuable space in the larder. …

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