Panettone Cake: History, Information, Interesting Facts

Panettone cake: history, information, interesting facts


‘Panettone’ is one of the most typical Italian Christmas cakes. Its origins are deeply rooted in the distant past of the city of Milan: some scholars think they could be traced back to the Classical Era. The dessert, as we know it today, can be considered the final result of a long evolution, rich in fascinating stories, legends, celebrities and ‘tasty’ information. Let’s deepen the knowledge of this specialty, very appreciated also outside Italy. Let’s find the most traditional bakery that prepares it still following the original recipe.

Panettone cake: Panettone, Christmas dessert from Milan.


What is Panettone cake?

The best way to start an article about ‘Panettone’ is undoubtedly explaining exactly what it consists of.

The Italian Panettone is a sweet bread loaf, cylindrical in shape, with a round base and a domed top (the ‘cupola’). It’s prepared by baking a leavened dough made of flour, water, eggs, butter, with the addition of raisin and little pieces of candied fruit.

In September 2003, the characteristics and the method of production of this dessert were ratified through a specific procedural guideline compiled by a committee of Milanese Master Pastry Chefs. This procedural guideline was later integrated into a Decree of the Italian Ministry of Productive Activities (*1).

Click here for the official definition of Panettone.

Soft oven-baked confectionery product, obtained by natural fermentation of sourdough, with a round base and a cracked top crust characteristically cut. It’s texture is fluffy and elongated, its scent is the typical sourdough leavening aroma.

Panettone cake. Panettone cake.

*1: Decree of 22 July 2005, published in the Official Gazette number 177, 01/08/2005.

WebFoodCulture: the most typical specialties, the most traditional restaurants and producers.

The most typical specialties, the most traditional restaurants and producers.


Panettone cake: the stuff of legend.

In this paragraph will be presented some of the most famous legends about the birth of Panettone. These legends, although not very reliable and thus quite useless to establish with precision the origins of this Christmas dessert, undoubtedly have the merit of greatly enhancing its charm.

Panettone cake and the Sforza family (img-01)

The ‘pan di Toni’ (‘Tony’s bread’)

The most known story is set in the Fifteenth Century, at the court of Ludovico Maria Sforza, Duke of Milan. According to this legend, on the occasion of a great Christmas banquet, the nobleman’s chef, distracted by many tasks, accidentally burned the dessert. Read more

Quite a problem, especially considering the importance of the guests, unexpectedly solved by a young apprentice called Toni. The previous morning, the boy had prepared a kind of bread for himself, using the few ingredients at his disposal, including eggs, butter, flour, candied fruit and raisins. This sweet bread, suddenly became the last resort to save the unfortunate situation, was served to the guests. They appreciated so much its taste that the Duke himself asked for information. The ‘official’ cook, though reluctantly, had to admit that it was the ‘pan del Toni’ (the ‘bread made by Toni’).

It’s important to stress the fact that the word ‘Panettone’ could come from ‘pan del Toni’.

Panettone cake: The Panettone of ‘Messer Ulivo’. Panettone cake: The Panettone of ‘Messer Ulivo’.

The Panettone of ‘Messer Ulivo’

Another legend tells of a falconer, Messer Ulivo (*1), so madly in love with a baker’s daughter to change his job, starting to work for the father of his beloved. It seems that, as a symbol of his affection, he invented a dessert, using eggs, sugar, butter, flour and raisin. The ‘Panettone’ made by Messer Ulivo achieved such a great success that he could marry the woman he desired.

Panettone cake: The panettone of Sister Ughetta. Panettone cake: The Panettone of Sister Ughetta.

The Panettone of Sister Ughetta

The last legend tells of Ughetta, a nun who is supposed to have invented the Panettone to give a little joy to her sisters.
Although this story is the least likely of the three presented here, it’s interesting to note that the word ‘ughett’ in Milanese dialect means ‘raisin’: this is, ‘coincidentally’, one of the main ingredients of the Christmas dessert we are talking about.

*1: ‘Messer Ulivo Degli Atellani’.


The origins of Panettone cake.

As it’s easy to imagine, the more ancient are the origins of a gastronomic specialty, the more difficult is to trace them with precision: this makes very difficult, if not impossible, to establish a proper ‘date of birth’. Panettone is no exception: its recipe and appearance, as we know them today, are the result of an evolution lasted for centuries. The only certainty in the study of this dessert is its birthplace: the city of Milan.
Read more

Panettone cake: Milan, 'Scrofa Seminaluta' (c-01) Celts and Romans: Some scholars hypothesize that in the VI Century BC, the ancient tribe of Celtic origin, founder of ‘Medhelan’ (today’s Milan), may have been the first to taste a primitive form of Panettone (*1).
Other scholars point out the similarity of this dessert with a particular type of bread, very rich in ingredients, prepared in the classical era by the Romans.
The available information is undoubtedly inaccurate, but still useful to understand how ancient is the tradition of this Christmas specialty.

Panettone cake: Francesco I Sforza (img-02) Middle Ages and Renaissance: Historical records indicate that, in the XIII Century, the richest citizens of Milan probably tasted the ‘forefather’ of Panettone: this consisted of a large loaf of bread, enriched with many ingredients.
In one of his writings of the late Fifteenth Century, Giorgio Valagussa, humanist and preceptor of the Sforza house, makes explicit reference to ‘three big wheat loaves’ (*2): on Christmas Eve, during the ‘rito del ciocco’ (‘Log Ritual’ *3), every head of a family used to cut them, distributing the slices among his relatives and preserving one as a good omen.

Panettone cake: Milan topography, 1573 (img-03) Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century: The ‘Varon milanes de la lengua de Milan’ was published between the end of the Sixteenth Century and the beginning of the Seventeenth. It’s an etymological dictionary of the Milanese dialect, written by Giovanni Capis. This book is particularly interesting because makes explicit reference to the ‘panaton de Danedaa’, described as: “A large loaf of bread, similar to those prepared on Christmas day.“
Another reference to Panettone can be found in a note kept at the Borromeo College, in the city of Pavia (a little town not far from Milan). This note dates back to 1599 and specifies with precision the ingredients used to prepare “13 pani grossi per dar alli scolari il giorno di Natale” (”13 big loaves of bread to give to students on Christmas Day”). These ingredients are butter, raisins and various spices.

Panettone cake: The 'panetton'. 1814: the ‘panatton’ of Cherubini: In 1814 the Milanese writer Francesco Cherubini began to write a milanese-italian vocabulary: this is very important in the history of Panettone (in dialect ‘panatton’), because provides the first definition of it:
“A kind of bread made with butter, sugar and raisins from Corinto (ughett): it’s prepared in our city during Christmas and can have different shapes. We call it “el panatton de Natal” (the “Christmas panatton”)”

*1: They ate it during the traditional ‘Yule’ celebration, held each year in December, on the occasion of the winter solstice;
*2: At that time, wheat bread was very rare and expensive. Only the nobles and the wealthiest people could afford its high price;
*3: The ‘rito del ciocco’ (‘Log ritual’) mentioned by Valagussa is described in detail in another paragraph of this article.


The ingredients of Panettone cake.

Here follows a list of the main ingredients used to make the traditional Panettone, this list is per the official procedural guideline:

  • Wheat flour (type 0);
  • Sugar;
  • Chicken eggs;
  • Butter;
  • Raisin;
  • Candied fruit (citron and orange);
  • Natural yeast;
  • Salt;

Panettone cake: The ingredients.

The guideline gives the possibility to use also some other ingredients, such as milk, honey, malt, cocoa butter and a few emulsifiers and preservatives.
Producers have some freedom when choosing quantities (in any case not less than a defined percentage) and in the preparation (for example, the number of risings). This kind of discretion can be considered, in a way, their ‘secret’ to create the ‘perfect’ Panettone.


How Panettone cake is made ?

Panettone cake: Preparation.

From the very beginning of this paragraph, it should be pointed out that making the traditional Panettone is not an easy task and takes a lot of effort. This is exactly why, if it’s handmade (*1), it’s much more expensive than an industrial one, produced using specific machines. It goes without saying that, in general, the difference between the two types appears almost immediately quite evident.

Here follows the list of the stages of preparation of Panettone:
Read more

1) Preparation of the dough;
2) First leavening;
3) ‘Spezzatura’: dough division;
4) ‘Pirlatura’: dough rounding;
5) Placement of the pieces of dough in the ‘pirottini’ (paper molds used to give this dessert its typical cylindrical shape);
6) Final leavening in the ‘pirottino’;
7) ‘Scarpatura’: this procedure consists of cutting (*3) the top of the dessert (the ‘cupola’);
8) Baking;
9) Cooling (Panettone is turned upside down to preserve its dome-shaped top).

*1: Pastry chef may, however, use some equipment: for example, mixers;
*2: ‘Pirottino’: paper mold used to give this dessert its typical cylindrical shape;
*3: A cross-shaped cut;

Panettone cake: detail.


The shapes of Panettone cake.

As already explained in the previous paragraphs, the ancestor of Panettone was just a ’large loaf’, rich in ingredients, quite low and round shaped (img.1). During the first half of the 20th century, the food entrepreneurs Angelo Motta and Gioacchino Alemagna introduced the use of the ‘pirottino’: this particular paper container made their Panettone high and cylindrical, with a domed top (‘cupola’) (img.2). Recently the Milanese bakers and some confectionery factories are trying to revive the original tradition, returning to make a shorter Panettone (img.3).

Panettone cake: The shapes of Panettone. Panettone cake: The shapes of Panettone.


Saint Blaise and Panettone.

Panettone cake: Saint Blaise (img-08)

An ancient Milanese tradition consists in saving a portion of the Christmas Panettone and eating it after a few weeks: more precisely on February 3, the day in which St.Blaise is celebrated.
This Saint has a central role in at least a couple of legends:
One of them tells a story in which he supposedly made appear a Panettone out of nowhere, saving a greedy priest from embarrassment.
Another says that he saved a young man about to choke on a fishbone stuck in his throat, making him swallow a bread crumb. Since then it is a common belief that eating Panettone on 3 February protects health, especially that of the respiratory system (*1).

*1: A famous Milanese proverb says: “A San Bias se benedis la gola e él nas” (“during the Saint Blaise celebrations, throat and nose are blessed”).


Brief history of the city of Milan.

Panettone cake: Milan Cathedral, facade (cc-01)

Milan is located in the north of the Italian peninsula. It was founded in the VI Century BC by the Celts: they named it ‘Medhelan’. Conquered by the Romans, ‘Mediolanum’ in time acquired great prestige, importance preserved during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
The Spanish and Austrian domination were fundamental in the history of this city. Precious was its contribution to the uprising which led to the unification and independence of Italy (the ‘Risorgimento’). In the 20th Century, Milan became the economic capital of the country, leading its industrial development: a position that keeps still today. Equally important is its role in the field of culture.

Panettone cake: Milan,'The last supper', Leonardo (img-04)


Milan, the city of Panettone cake.

Milan, one of the most important Italian cities, is in the Lombardia Region. It’s, without doubt, the major economic center of the country.



It’s quite difficult to determine which is the most ancient Milanese pastry shop preparing the classic Panettone. Read more

Until we find it out, please refer to the following list including some of the most traditional places.
Pasticceria Marchesi
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, 20121 Milan – Italy
Official website
Pasticceria Cova
Via Monte Napoleone, 8, 20121 Milan – Italy
Official website
Pasticceria Sant Ambroeus
Corso Giacomo Matteotti, 7, 20121 Milan – Italy
Official website
Pasticceria Viscontea
Via Edmondo de Amicis, 39, 20123 Milan – Italy
Official website

How Panettone Cake is made.


How Panettone Cake is made.

Here follows an interesting video showing how Panettone Cake is made:

Main ingredients:

  • Flour;
  • Butter;
  • Sugar;
  • Egg yolks;
  • Candied fruit;
  • Sultana grapes;
  • Salt;
  • Yeast;

Panettone cake: The origin of the name 'Panettone'.


The origin of the word ‘Panettone’.

There are several hypotheses about the origin of the name ‘Panettone’ (in Milanese ‘panattòn’), here follow some of them:

‘Panettone’ could derive from an Italian word probably meaning ‘grande pane’ (big loaf of bread);
‘Panettone’ could derive from ‘pan de ton’: this expression was used in Milan during the Fifteenth Century to indicate the type of bread usually eaten only by rich people (white bread). It was very different from the ‘pan de mei’, eaten by the poor;
‘Panettone’ could derive from “pan de Toni”, an expression used by a cook in the most famous legend regarding the Milanese dessert (legend narrated in this article).


The ‘log ritual’ (‘rito del ciocco’).

The ‘log ritual’ was once a very important tradition in Milan: on Christmas Eve, every head of a family poured wine over a large branch of wood (‘ciocco’) and burned it in the fireplace.
Read more

Having done this, he cut three ‘large loaves of bread’ into slices, distributing them among the members of the family and keeping one for good luck. It’s quite possible that these ‘large loaves of bread’ were a primitive form of Panettone.
In the first volume of his ‘History of Milan’ (1836), Count Pietro Verri, historian, philosopher and economist, described this ritual:
“Nella vigilia del Santo Natale si faceva ardere un ceppo ornato di frondi e di mela, spargendovi sopra tre volte vino e ginepro: e intorno vi stava tutta la famiglia in festa. Questa usanza durava ancora nel secolo decimoquinto, e la celebrò Galeazzo Maria Sforza. Il giorno del Santo Natale i padri di famiglia distribuivano fin d’allora i denari acciò tutti potessero divertirsi giuocando. Si usavano in quei giorni dei pani grandi; e si ponevano sulla mensa ceci, anitre e carni di majale, come anche oggidì il popolo costuma di fare”

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The ‘Kulic’.

‘Kulič’ is an Easter cake very popular in Russia and the Orthodox countries of Eastern Europe.
Read more

It’s interesting to mention it in this article because it’s quite similar to Panettone. These two desserts, for example, have in common some of the ingredients used for the dough, like flour, milk, butter and sugar. Another similarity is in the use of raisins, candied fruit and almonds. There are also some differences: unlike Panettone, ‘Kulič’ is covered with icing and is aromatized with liqueur and various spices.


Christmas music for the ‘Panettone’.

What better choice than a selection of Christmas songs to accompany a slice of delicious Panettone?

Note: join Spotify and listen to the full song.


Panettone for the pope.

In 1847, Paolo Biffi, pastry chef of the Savoia Royal Family, prepared a huge Panettone to donate to Pope Pius IX. He also hired a special carriage to be sure that the Christmas cake could be quickly and safely delivered to Rome.


Prince Metternich loves Panettone.

Prince Klemens von Metternich (*1) loved Panettone very much.
Read more

That’s why, during the Austrian domination of Milan, Ficquelmont, governor of the city, used to donate one to him on the occasion of the Christmas festivities.
It seems that the Prince, referring to the revolting Milanese people, once said: “they are as good as Panettone”.

*1: Although indirectly, Metternich contributed to the invention of the Sachertorte.

The right beverage for Panettone cake.


The right beverage for Panettone cake.

What to drink with a delicious slice of Panettone?
There are many choices, one of the best is a white wine, slightly sparkling, sweet and fresh. For example, a ‘Moscato d’Asti’.
The sweetness accompanies that of the cake, without exceeding it.
The acidity, the delicate saltiness and slight effervescence accompany the greasiness of the dough.


Click here.

The images bearing the logo ‘webfoodculture’ are copyrighted.

The following images are public domain:

img-01 (*) – Ludovico Sforza, G.A. Boltraffio, XV sec. (Wikipedia Link) {PD-Art} {PD-US}
img-02 (*) – Francesco I Sforza, B.Bembo, XV sec. (Wikipedia Link) {PD-Art} {PD-US}
img-03 (*) – Milan topography, 1573 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-04 (*) – ‘The Last Supper’, Leonardo da Vinci, 1498 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-Art} {PD-US}
img-05 (*) – Pope Pius IX, G. Healy, 1871 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-Art} {PD-US}
img-06 (*) – Klemens von Metternich, Anonymous, 1835/1840 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-Art} {PD-US}
img-07 (*) – Five Days of Milan, B. Verazzi, 1886 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-Art} {PD-US}
img-08 (*) – Saint Blaise, Hans Memling, 1491 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-Art} {PD-US}
img-09 (*) – George Bernard Shaw, 1936 (Wikipedia Link)

These images are made available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0):

cc-01 (**) – Milan Cathedral, facade, image belonging to José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro (Wikipedia Link)
cc-02 (**) – Kulich, image belonging to Tamara Ustinova (Wikipedia Link)

The following images belong to their authors and are published with their permission:

c-01 (**) – Milan, ‘Scrofa Seminaluta’, image belonging to Bramfab (Wikipedia Link)

The header image is pubblic domain:

Immagine 01 (*) – Milan, The Cathedral, G.Brogi, 1870. (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}

(*) The copyright of this image has expired.
(**) Image released in public domain by its author.