Christmas Food & Drink: Chow bella

There's no groaning over stodge when you delight in Italy's festive desserts. Michael Bateman celebrates the delicacy of panettone

If British Christmas treats are world heavyweights, those of Italy are the bantamweights. While we overdose on rich mince pies, suet plum puddings and dense Christmas cake, the Italians sail away on frothy egg confections such as zabaglione, airy biscuits like amaretti, and heavenly, featherweight cakes.

This isn't to say that Christmas in Italy is light. They feast on turkey as we do, with possibly more courses leading up to it. But the end of their meal is uplifting, rather than heart-sinking.

Anna del Conte, Britain's leading Italian food writer, remembers the meals of her childhood, the sideboard groaning with such after-dinner delights as torrone (almond nougat), whole candied fruits, marrons glaces, chestnut truffles, exquisitely wrapped chocolates, fruit jellies, mandarins, grapes and so on. But the crowning glory was always the huge, oven-browned dome of the panettone, a delicate froth of a cake, full of sultanas, raisins and candied peel, breathing the warming aroma of grappa.

In Britain, this pleasure has been mostly confined to the costly food halls of Knightsbridge. Even in Italy panettone is not cheap. There, bakers labour all year to build up reserves to meet the biannual demand (for it is also eaten at Easter). It does not stale, for it is surprisingly rich in preservative sugar and butter, fruit and alcohol. Indeed, it should keep for three to six months, though in practice it probably survives three to six minutes. A family can easily demolish a one-kilo panettone in a sitting.

And if they don't, there's no chance of it hanging around like our festive desserts. Leftovers just aren't left over, but snapped up at breakfast for divine toast, or broken into chunks to make trifle (a dish charmingly known as Zuppa Inglese, or English soup).

Panettone has been made in Milan since the l5th century - what is effectively an enriched yeast bread dough was the invention of one Antonio, hence the name, Toni's bread. The best panettone is probably sold in Peck, Milan's, and probably the world's, most exclusive food store. In Peck it is considered not unreasonable to pay pounds 30 for the bigger panettoni.

I know this because I was taken there by Giulio Lazzaroni, a Milanese baker who is bringing panettone to Britain for Christmas. And not at pounds 30 - 300g domes will cost just pounds 1.49; and not just in elitist Knightsbridge, but freshly baked in over half Asda's stores.

All this is due to a miracle of modern baking technology. The secret of the new panettone has been to marry traditional to commercial baking (using the sort of machines that give us factory loaves). I travelled with Asda's development chef, Neil Nugent, to the Lazzaroni factory in Saronno, the industrial town outside Milan. We marvelled at the 21st-century technology, the giant, stainless steel rollers shaping, stretching, lifting, lowering, flattening, cutting, teasing and pampering the dough.

It's all some way from the British factory baking which gives us the white sliced loaf. Panettone requires no fewer than 37 hours of maturing. The Lazzaroni panettoni are pre-baked to within 10 minutes of completion, frozen, and then thawed out in Asda's in-store bakeries and given a final 10 minutes' baking, to be sold fresh. Now that's technology working for the customer.

Neil reckons you have to be a genius to make panettone (or else be in on Toni's secret). Here are three of his own recipes for using up leftover panettone, together with two others which derive from his continuing love affair with Milanese baking.

PANETTONE ZUPPA INGLESE

Serves 6

4 egg yolks

100g/4oz each caster sugar and flour

500ml/16fl oz warm milk

1 teaspoon vanilla essence

grated zest of 1 lemon

500ml/16fl oz double cream

300g/12oz panettone, roughly chopped

100ml/3fl oz dark rum

150g/6oz dried apricots, roughly chopped

Soak the apricots in the rum for two hours. Scald the milk with the vanilla essence and lemon zest.

Over a bain-marie, whisk the egg yolks and sugar until creamy; slowly whisk in the sifted flour; keep whisking until there are no lumps. Slowly add the milk a little at a time and whisk until the mix thickens. Leave to cool. Place the chopped panettone in a large dessert or trifle bowl, and pour the apricot and rum mix on top. Leave to soak.

Whisk the cream to ribbon stage and fold into the cooled pastry cream. Pour the mixture on the panettone mix. Chill for one hour before serving.

PANETTONE WITH VANILLA ICE-CREAM & CHOCOLATE SAUCE

Serves 4

300g/12oz panettone

100g/4oz vanilla ice-cream

250ml/8fl oz whipping cream

200g/8oz plain chocolate

25g/1oz icing sugar, plus extra for dusting

To make the sauce: bring the cream to the boil, remove from heat and stir in the chocolate and sugar until smooth. Leave to cool. Remove a 2cm (1in) thick slice from the top of the panettone and set aside. Scoop out the inside, leaving 1cm (13in) at the sides. Fill with ice-cream, replace the lid and bake at 350F/180C/Gas Mark 4 for four minutes. Dust with the sugar. Serve immediately with the cooled sauce.

PANETTONE BREAD & BUTTER PUDDING

Serves 4

300g/12oz panettone, sliced into 6 and lightly buttered

500ml/16fl oz full fat milk

250ml/8fl oz double cream

100g/4oz caster sugar

3 medium eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla essence

50g/2oz amaretti, crushed

mascarpone to serve

Preheat the oven to 325F/160C/Gas Mark 3. Lay the lightly buttered panettone into a large ovenproof dish. Whisk the eggs and sugar together, and add the milk, cream and vanilla essence to form a custard mix. Pour the mixture over the panettone and place in the oven for 30 minutes, until the custard has set. Garnish with the crushed amaretti and mascarpone before serving.

TORTA CAPRESE

150g/6oz each dark chocolate and butter

100g/4oz caster sugar

4 medium eggs, separated

12 teaspoon baking powder

50g/2oz each ground almonds and plain flour

150g/6oz whole almonds, roughly chopped

Preheat the oven to 350F/180C/Gas Mark 4. Melt the chocolate and butter together over a low heat.

Whisk the sugar and egg yolks together until creamy and fold in the flour, baking powder and ground almonds. Add the smooth melted chocolate and butter mix, then the chopped almonds.

Whisk the egg whites until stiff, then fold into the mix. Pour into a 2cm (1in) flan tin. Bake this cake for 30 minutes, or until it is firm and springy in the middle. Allow to cool. Serve with mascarpone.

BRICIOLOTTA

100g/4oz butter

250g/10oz plain flour, sifted

75g/3oz caster sugar

50g/2oz ground almonds

pinch of salt

1 medium egg and 1 medium egg yolk, mixed

50g/2oz each almonds and hazelnuts, chopped

50g/2oz pine nuts

granulated sugar for sprinkling

Preheat the oven to 350F/180C/Gas Mark 4. Mix together all the nuts except the ground almonds.

In a bowl, work the flour, salt and butter together to form a breadcrumb- like texture. Add the caster sugar, ground almonds, nut mix (keeping a little aside) and eggs and bring together to form a ball. Break the pastry roughly around a 22cm (10in) flan tin: do not pack into the tin as this will affect the texture. Sprinkle the remaining nuts and some granulated sugar over the mix, then rest for 20 minutes in a cool place. Bake for 30 minutes until golden and leave to cool. Serve by breaking pieces off and dipping into grappa or a good dessert wine.

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