Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Carleen Madigan: The Quest for the Perfect Panettone

When making your own panettone, it helps to enlist Cooking with Fire author Paula Marcoux.

Spotted everywhere: Panettone!
Since the first time I tasted it, I’ve been obsessed with our local bakery’s panettone, a traditional Italian Christmas bread. Unlike the dry, crumbly imported versions that are stacked like bricks in the aisles of gourmet groceries every December, this panettone was light, flaky, and delicious. 

In an effort to replicate it, I searched online for “authentic Italian panettone” recipes. I came across a video on Martha Stewart’s website, with a real live Italian pastry chef making panettone from a traditional recipe. Bingo! Except...the starter (creatively made from ground-up apples) must be fed every four hours for a solid month. Seriously, Martha?

The masochistic baker in me wanted to try it, but my rational baker side emailed the author of Cooking with Fire instead. After all, who needs Martha when you’ve got Paula Marcoux?
I’m going to give Paula’s version, which uses the sourdough starter from Cooking with Fire, a whirl.
Though it doesn’t call for candied lemon peel, I’ve got plenty to use up, so I’ll include it as part of the pound of dried fruits in Paula’s recipe (though I probably won’t soak it in alcohol). 
Future panettone: sourdough starter from Cooking with Fire
The panettone recipe below originally appeared on Paula’s website, The Magnificent Leaven. We’re sharing it here, with her permission. 

Paula Marcoux’s Solstice Panettini

Paula writes: “Making delectable panettone need not be an arduous process — in fact it’s pretty straightforward — but developing great flavor in the dough dictates that it’s anything but instant gratification. If you start your panettone on the winter solstice, you’re in for a treat on Christmas Eve.

I mostly bake with natural leavening so I am accustomed to dealing with slow-moving doughs. I am still amazed by the absolute sluggishness of this one. Its apparent inertia is due to the high ratio of butter in the dough; the cool atmosphere required for long fermentation immobilizes it. But, have no fear — the poor little microorganisms are working away within that very rigid structure, pretty much invisibly until the mass begins to warm up just prior to baking. You, the baker, won't have to lift a finger during that long interval; you're letting the little guys do all the work.”

This recipe makes 1 regulation-sized panettone, or 10 wee individual panettone that I can't help thinking of as panettini.

2 cups raisins or currants, or your favorite dried fruit, cut in bits
very hot water
1 vanilla bean
minced zest from an orange and a lemon
¼ cup rum, or so
12 ounces bread flour
4 ounces stiff sourdough starter*
2 eggs, lightly beaten
liquid from raisin soaker (½ cup)
⅔ cup sugar
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon dry yeast
5 ounces soft lightly salted butter

The day (or several days) before:
Barely cover the raisins with very hot water. Stir in the vanilla bean, broken in two, and the zest. When it is cool, add the rum. Let soak, covered, at room temperature until you get around to mixing the dough.

The dough (best made in a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook):
Holding the solids from the raisin soaker back, place all the rest of the ingredients in the bowl of the mixer and mix at low speed until well combined, about 3–4 minutes. The dough should be smooth and very loose.

Rescue the vanilla bean and set aside for further use; mix in the soaked raisins and zest.

Cut the nice soft butter in bits and mix it into the dough on second speed. Scrape up from the bottom with a spatula, and mix again for a minute.

Scrape the sides well, and cover the bowl with a plate or a sheet of plastic wrap held tight with a rubber band. Put the bowl in a warm spot for 2 hours, stirring it up from the bottom in a folding action every 30 minutes.

Spoon the dough into individual panettone papers in blobs weighing just north of 4 ounces. Smooth the tops with the back of a wet spoon. Place them on a baking sheet, not touching, and place the whole thing inside a sealable plastic tub or a very big plastic bag, closing tightly. Put in a cooler part of the house, low 50–60° F. Leave overnight (16 hours is not too long). The dough will look virtually unchanged after this period.

Next day — the bake!
This part depends a bit on your equipment, but basically you want to slowly warm up the panettini before baking. I edged on my gas oven on for a few minutes, then turned it off when it reached around 100° F. I placed a pan of boiling water on the lower shelf and the unwrapped panettini on their baking sheet on the upper one. I replaced the hot water when it got cool, leaving the panettini in the oven with no additional heat for 1 hour. Don't expect them to rise visibly even after this treatment.

After the hour, dispose of the cool water in the pan and add a new batch of boiling water under the panettini. Turn the oven on to 450° F. In 30 minutes, turn the oven down to 400°, and peek inside. If rapid browning seems to be underway, lay some aluminum foil loosely on top. Bake another 10 minutes, then remove from the oven. Gently transfer the panettini from the baking sheet to a cooling rack.

If you are making the one larger loaf, it pays to use the cooling trick of piercing the pannetone through (paper and all) with a thin skewer about an inch up from the bottom, and suspending it upside down between two sturdy objects. It helps maintain that hard-won volume through the cooling period.

* Instructions for starting a sourdough culture may be found in Cooking with Fire, pages 268–273.

Photos courtesy of Carleen Madigan

Cooking with Fire is available wherever books are sold.

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