DOME-SHAPED, round, golden-crusted and laden with fruit, panettone should be on every Christmas table. A delicious, light, egg-yellow cake with bits of candied orange, citron, and raisins, it is a holiday specialty all over Italy, but a Milanese specialty all year round. Every visitor to Milan is sure to be offered a slice, often to go with a cup of coffee at breakfast. Somewhat like a large brioche, panettone comes in many sizes, but is always round and fat. It's a cake that stays fresh for a long time, and it has a special, memorable fragrance.
There are many fables about the origins of this celebrated Italian Christmas specialty. One version is that panettone was originally the Milanese word pan de ton, or luxury bread. Another theory holds that it is merely a form of pane, or bread, and that panettone means simply large bread.
Milanese bakers claim the very air and water of Milan give its panettone a special texture and delicate flavor, making it the very best in the country.
Whatever its specific birthplace, no true Italian would be without it for Christmas, and some people from other countries are happy to invent some Italian ``roots'' when they see this delicious holiday bread.
Here's a recipe adapted by ``The Joy of Cooking'' that makes a fine gift. Panettone 1 cup 105 to 115 degrees F. water 2 packages active dry yeast 1 cup all purpose flour 1/2 cup butter 1/2 cup sugar 2 to 3 eggs 1 teaspoon salt 2 teaspoons grated lemon rind 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour 1/8 cup chopped citron 1/4 cup white raisins or chopped candied pineapple 1 cup chopped nuts Melted butter 1/2 cup shredded blanched almonds 1/4 cup sugar Milk or lemon glaze
Combine water and yeast and let stand 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in 1 cup flour. Cover and let sponge rise in warm place until double in bulk. Beat butter until soft and gradually add sugar and blend until light and creamy. Beat in eggs, one at a time. Add salt and lemon rind. Beat in the sponge. Sift and beat in gradually the 31/2 cups flour. Beat the dough 5 minutes more. Add fruit and nuts.
Cover bowl with cloth and let dough rest about 2 hours or until almost doubled in bulk. Punch down, divide, and place in 2 greased tube pans or greased 1-pound coffee cans. Let rise about 1/2 hour. Brush tops with melted butter. Instead of adding fruits to batter, you may combine and sprinkle blanched almonds and sugar on top.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Bake about 1/2 hour.
Note: Instead of nuts and sugar on top you may use a milk or lemon glaze after the cake has baked and cooled.
Milk Glaze 1/2 cup confectioners' sugar 2 teaspoons hot milk 1/4 teaspoon vanilla
Sift sugar, then combine all ingredients. This can also be used on small cakes similar to petit fours. Makes about 1/3 cup.
Lemon Glaze 1 1/4 cups confectioners' sugar 1/4 cup lemon, orange, or lime juice 1 teaspoon vanilla
Combine and mix until smooth. Makes about 1/2 cup.