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Panettone-Christmas Bread from Italy

Servings: Makes 1 loaf or 6 small loaves
Panettone, the tall cake-like bread filled with raisins and candied orange and lemon peel, is not only Italy's favorite Christmas dessert, it comes with a history as colorful as a fairy-tale. A ritual surrounds this traditional bread: each family member takes a taste from each of the first three slices to ensure luck in the future.

The most popular speculation about Panettone's origin concerns a young Milanese nobleman, a member of the Atellini family, who fell in love with the daughter of a baker named Toni. To impress the girl's father, the young man disguised himself as a baker's boy and invented a sweet, wonderful bread of rare delicacy and unusual size with a top shaped like a church dome. This new, fruitcake-like bread enjoyed enormous success, with people coming to the bakery in droves at all hours to purchase the magnificent Pan de Toni (or Tony's Bread).

Serve Panettone not only for Christmas but right through New Years for a tasty treat.

1 cup raisins (dark, golden or a combination)
1 cup mixed peel or other chopped dried fruit such as apricots, figs or cranberries
1/2 cup brandy
1 cup milk, room temperature
1 envelope (2 1/2 tsp/7grams) active dry yeast
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup (1 stick/4 oz/113g) butter, softened
1/2 cup granulated sugar
4 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. salt
3 to 4 cups flour
2 tbsp. (1/4 stick/2 oz/28g) unsalted butter, melted

Combine dried fruit and brandy. Cover and let fruit soak at least 8 hours or overnight.

In a medium bowl, stir together milk and yeast until yeast starts to dissolve. Stir in the 3/4 cup flour until a sticky batter forms. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise until double in size, about 1 hour.

In a large mixing bowl, cream together the softened butter and sugar. Beat in eggs one by one, then beat in vanilla and salt. Beat for 5 minutes.

Add yeast mixture and 1 cup flour and beat until a smooth mixture forms. Attach a dough hook to your mixer and begin beating in 2 1/2 cups remaining flour. If you don't have a dough hook, mix in flour with your hands. Knead dough for 10 minutes. Add soaked fruit and continue to knead for another 3 minutes. Dough should be soft and slightly sticky.

Shape the dough into a ball and place in a well buttered large bowl. Turn dough over so surface of dough is lightly greased. Cover with a clean tea towel or plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until dough is doubled, about 1 1/2 hours.

Punch down dough and shape into a ball. Place in a well greased panettone pan or a deep 8, 9 or 10-inch round baking pan (I use a souffle dish). To make smaller loaves, divide dough into 6 portions and place in smaller souffle or cake pans. Brush with 1 tablespoon melted butter. Let rise in a warm place until doubled, about 1 hour.

Bake at 375 degrees F (190 C) for 40 to 50 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. For small loaves, bake 25 to 30 minutes.

Brush with remaining melted butter and let cool 20 minutes before removing to cooling rack.

Makes 1 large panettone or 6 small panettone loaves.

Date: November 19, 2004