While it's hard to begrudge any gifts brought to your house around the holidays, your standard boxed panettone can elicit groans similar to the ones you let out as a kid when opening another box of underwear or socks.
But most people haven't met great panettone. A matrix of lightly tart, yeasty bread cradles butter, hazelnut, and chocolate in the stellar panettone made by Chef Nick Lisotto and his sous chefs Craig Parahus and Antonio Brice at The Racquet Club in Philadelphia. No one mistakes this work of art for fruitcake.
But how could they ever be confused in the first place?
"The panettone you get here [that is, your average supermarket or mall version], they either use a fresh compressed yeast or a dry yeast with maybe some natural leavening. They use all purchased yeast, so the interior is more like cake," Adam Leoniti, the Chef de Cuisine at Vetri says.
And that density is why it can be mistaken for fruitcake.
"But that's not what it is. The word is panettone—the big bread. In Italy they make it like a bread."
The key, according to Leoniti, is to use only natural leavening in order to achieve a wispy, near cotton candy-like interior.
Leoniti, who began honing his panettone skills while working at a restaurant in Bergamo, Italy, says that while stories vary on the bread's origins, the extravagance of a litany of ingredients eventually led to it being a treat for Christmas time only.
Besides the fact that bakers could ill afford to lose money on panettone that didn't sell, there's the incredible amount of time put into each one.
Of course, during the holidays, if you're giving a gift, the thought you put into it speaks volumes.
"Like most things in Italy, it's not the expense, it's the effort that goes into it," Lisotto says.
To get an idea of what goes into a stellar panettone, I dropped into the cavernous basement kitchen of Center City Philadelphia's The Racquet Club to speak with Lisotto, Parahus, and Brice while watching them go through various stages of their three-day panettone process.
In addition to boasting a light, airy, and flavorful dough, Lisotto's panettone thinks outside the (department store) box by standing out in two major ways: in lieu of dried fruit, it has chunks of chocolate whose fat content amplifies the buttery dough, as well as a cascade from a rich hazelnut paste that goes from crunchy to gooey and back to tectonic as you go from top to bottom.
This is a departure from even the panettone Lisotto helped make while working at Vetri. After Vetri, he tweaked his recipe in his spare time before adjusting it further upon coming on board at The Racquet Club seven months ago.
"The starter itself, we've been feeding every three hours for the past three months. It develops strength," Lisotto says. Each large panettone is 1,000 grams; the smaller ones are 200 grams. "To move that much mass, you have to have strength within the bread itself," Lisotto says.
Lisotto showed me a 12 quart container with masking tape marking the minimal target for an ever rising starter that they keep in a proofing box consisting of a stainless steel cabinet rigged with a space heater keeping it at 75 degrees—ideal for yeast activity.
"Every day it's pulling in things from the air and developing more and more flavor. The sourness, the natural fermentation of the yeast, that's what's special with each one."
Parahus says their approach delivers a yeasty, old world bread flavor which cuts through the fatty elements of butter and chocolate.
"In all honesty, the ones from a month from now are going to be better than the ones from today because you get that level of depth within the bread, that kind of natural bacteria that forms," Lisotto says.
Day One, 6:30 a.m.
First thing in the morning, sugar, flour, water, egg yolks, and butter are incorporated into a percentage of the starter by weight, the ingredients added as it is turned in a Hobart mixer.
"This is where you stretch out and strengthen all that gluten," Lisotto says.
The dough arm turns and turns the dough for 15 minutes before Lisotto scrapes down the sides and sets it to mix for another five minutes.
The dough is then placed in the 75 degree proofing box where it will sit overnight to rise and get stronger. The starter, which was re-fed at this time (more flour and water added to it), is also returned to the proofing box.
"The great thing about this being a private club that never closes, is that we've got someone here all the time," Lisotto says.
Lisotto and Parahus are back at it at 6:30a.m. In order to meet their target of ten panettone a day in the weeks leading up to Christmas, they start a new panettone dough each day while moving along other doughs in the three day process, with panettone duties taking up two hours out of their day.
As for the dough on its second day, Lisotto adds more flour and water. After the dough mixes for ten minutes, egg yolk, sugar, and finely chopped vanilla beans are mixed into the dough; butter is poured on, and then salt, separated by brief periods of mixing.
While Lisotto says the salt accentuates the dough's flavor profile, he stresses adding it slowly and in the right amount in order to avoid killing the all important yeast.
After all the mixing, sous chef Antonio Brice hand folds three types of chocolate—milk, bitter dark, and white, all from Swiss purveyor Felchlin—into the dough, with the chopped chunks giving the impression of a giant mound of cookie dough.
"It's the most intense bread I've ever made," Brice says with a laugh, before rushing off to feed the starter.
The dough sits for an hour at room temperature before being shaped into molds. A mixture of egg whites, ground DuChilly hazelnuts, cornstarch, and sugar is poured atop the dough.
The molds are placed in the proofing box for 14 hours for a final rise. Post dinner shift, the big loaves are baked for 75 minutes at 335 degrees; the smaller ones take 35 minutes.
The bread rises beautifully to deliver the ultimate muffin top, a crisp mushroom cloud studded with gleaming chunks of sugar given the texture of a macaroon via the hazelnut paste that also supplies a lacquered sweetness. While the top is meant to be a crust, Lisotto says, the bottom is meant to have both crunch and decadent syrupy texture. During the baking process, the sweetened hazelnut mix snakes through the bread in gooey streamers as air pockets open up, as well as streaming downward between the mold and the bread. Lisotto admits, however, that each panettone is unique. As the dough matures, this paste can run through any dough as uniquely as a fingerprint.
The panettone are then left to hang upside down overnight, taking the process into the third day.
"It's a soufflé bread," Lisotto says. "If we didn't hang them upside down, they'd collapse back on themselves during the baking process."
As for serving, Lisotto keeps it simple. For the minis, he lops off the tops and places a dollop of vanilla gelato before replacing the top.
"I don't use an exotic flavor. I don't want anything to get in the way of the panettone," he says.
The creamy gelato accents the richness of the bread, highlighting the chocolate and the hazelnut paste.
Lisotto mentions a pregnant customer who effusively demanded a second mini and gelato combo. The baby wants one, she said effusively.
"It's all worth it when I see someone enjoying them," he says, beaming.
Want to taste it for yourself? A limited supply of panettones will be available to nonmembers—email email@example.com to reserve.