Fruitcake. Panettone. Stollen. You have many choices of Christmas breads to buy or make for your holiday table. But there can only be one Queen of Christmas. Our Christmas bread partisans (and as inveterate Jews, impartial judges) Daniel Gritzer and Max Falkowitz make their cases for which loaf deserves a place in your home.
"All unhappy breads," Tolstoy wrote, "are alike; each happy bread is happy in its own way."
This line from Anna Karenina, often mistranslated into a pithy statement about family life, strikes at the heart of the debate before us. For all bad versions of breads—lean and enriched, booze-soaked and nut-stuffed—are just that, bad. To argue about which one is more bad is about as productive as debating the number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin with Chuck Johnson.
Instead let us consider the good versions of each of these breads and discuss their merits and virtues on a level playing field. And before you dash off to your comment boxes—there's no such thing as good, fresh panettone!—direct your attention to the killer versions you'll find at New York's Sullivan Street Bakery, or this easy, beautiful recipe to make yourself, and try to say panettone is de facto terrible.
Panettone is the Thanksgiving dinner of holiday breads. It gives and gives and gives. With a panettone, you get that perfect slice from a fresh one—one that you buy from a reputable bakery, not a department store, or one that you bake yourself—and then you have toast to make in the days to come. And French toast after that. And once the massive loaf turns noticeably dry, bread pudding awaits. Or, my favorite: ice cream.
Go ahead and try that with rigid, uncompromising stollen, with its sugar-blasted crust and inflexible marzipan core.
But panettone is patient. At a time of year when the Earth seems to spin twice as fast, panettone will not rush you. A good buttery one, even absent the preservatives of grocery store brands, marches on for weeks before it dries out, and the average large loaf is substantial enough to satisfy your smallest hunger pangs as you pass it by on the kitchen counter for another pinch of bread.
No stollen is as hearty. Or as generous. Or as kind. Panettone, on the other hand, is the stuff of good cheer. — Max Falkowitz
I like panettone, a lot.
One might think that an argument in favor of stollen wouldn't start like that. But here's the thing: I'm so confident in the superiority of stollen that I see no need to knock the competition. Panettone is great, it's lovely. At its best, it's soft and tender, studded with the occasional raisin or dried fruit, maybe a nut. And it keeps pretty well, at least a few weeks.
But that's about where it ends.
Now close your eyes and imagine the following delights dancing in a winter landscape of mirth and goodwill: tender dried fruits galore, toasty nuts, a healthy splash of rum, marzipan, and spices—a hint of cardamom mixed in with the warmth of cinnamon and nutmeg. Roll them into the tight, warm embrace of a moist dough, bake them into eternal glee, then soak the whole thing in a soothing bath of melted butter. Now look up! A delicate snowfall of powdered sugar flutters down from above, coating our stollen in a featherlight blanket. O Joy! 'Tis a white Christmas after all! (Wait! What's that? Yes, I hear children singing!)
Oh, and did I mention that this delight can keep for MONTHS?
Max and I have discussed this, and I know one of the things he thinks makes panettone great is how well it lends itself to recycling. French toast, bread pudding, and yes, even an ice cream that I'm sure is stupendous. I have to agree that this is a plus for panettone, but it doesn't make it better than stollen, no more than a dry chicken that's been transformed into a wonderful chicken salad can be said to be better than a properly cooked juicy one.
Panettone isn't half bad, not by a long shot, but the Germans have the Italians whooped on this one. — Daniel Gritzer