Holidays, Italian style:
Panettone with crema al mascarpone
By Marisa Romano
Christmas in Italy is synonymous with panettone, the tall, dome-shaped sweet bread flavoured by a long, slow leavening and enriched by raisins and candied citrus peels. It appears in Italian artisanal bakeries and grocery stores just before the holiday season and takes centre stage on festive tables along with a glass of sweet sparkling wine. The last loaves of the season welcome the New Year before disappearing from store fronts and supermarket islands.
The origins of this dessert are ancient. Legend has it that it was created by a cook’s helper named Toni to replace a messed-up cake prepared for a sumptuous Christmas dinner at the court of the then duke of Milan, Ludovico il Moro, back in the 15th century. Toni’s bread (pan de toni) had a great success with the duke’s guests and panettone was born.
Initially common only in the Northern Italian region around Milan, the bread-like cake became popular all over Italy only after the First World War when the baker Angelo Motta refined the recipe, gave the loaf the typical tall dome shape and started its industrial production. According to a 2022 survey by the food blog foodtop.it, panettone Motta is still one of the best commercial brands on the market.
Since 2005, panettone is protected in Italy by a law that lists, defines and quantifies its basic ingredients (flour, butter, raisins, fresh eggs and candied peels) and specifies its preparation method. Only products made in Italy according to these directives can be sold as “panettone.”
Nowadays the Italian market also offers delicious variations on the classic recipe. These include the addition of ingredients like chocolate, custards, glazes, nuts and dry fruits. All very tempting, but my favourite is still the classic fluffy and buttery slice studded with plenty of fragrant sultana raisins and citrusy peels – best if from the oven of an artisanal bakery – served with a dollop of velvety crema al mascarpone (mascarpone mousse).
An old tradition in Milan is to honour St. Blaise by eating the last slice of panettone on February 3, his feast day according to the Catholic calendar. Yes, the stale piece kept from the holidays for that occasion. The saint, guardian of throat and nose, would then protect you from illness. I never followed that tradition, but with respiratory infections lurking this season, maybe it would be a good ritual to follow for 2023.
Marisa Romano is a foodie with Italian roots and a flair for sharing her love of food.
Crema al mascarpone
Mascarpone is a fresh cheese made with cow-milk cream – soft, mild, slightly sweet with a buttery hint. It is one of the most frequently used bases in Italian pastries, a little bit like cream cheese in North America. It is an essential ingredient in tiramisu, the best-known Italian cake, but it is also used in tarts and cream cakes. Beyond the pastry shop we find it in creamy pastas and savoury quiches.
This is the original recipe, the one used also to make the traditional tiramisu. It uses raw eggs so if you go for it, make sure to use only very fresh ones and take all precautions to avoid contamination from the outer shell. Marsala is a fortified wine produced in the region around the town of Marsala in Sicily. The sweet type gives this creamy preparation its distinct flavour.
- 500 gr. Mascarpone cheese
- 1/3 cup white sugar
- 4 eggs
- 3 Tbsp sweet Marsala wine
Separate egg whites and yolks and set aside.
Beat the yolks with sugar until light and frothy. Add mascarpone and mix with a whisk until smooth. Mix in the wine.
Whisk the egg whites until stiff peaks form and gently add to the mascarpone mixture to obtain a fluffy velvety mousse. Enjoy!
Crema al mascarpone without eggs
This very simple mousse can be flavoured with different combinations of liquors and aromas. Lip-smacking alternatives to the traditional sweet Marsala wine are Grand Marnier and orange zest, Amaretto and almond flavour or spicy rum and vanilla. The addition of vanilla and a tablespoon of cacao powder can replace the liquor and yield a delightful alcohol-free chocolate mousse.
- 500 gr mascarpone cheese
- 2/3 cup icing sugar
- 250 ml whipping cream
- 2-4 Tbsp liquor
- Orange zest or vanilla
Whisk mascarpone with liquor and zest or vanilla until soft and smooth.
Whip the cream to stiff peaks adding the sugar slowly, starting half-way through.
Gently mix whipped cream and mascarpone to obtain a smooth mousse. Easy and delish!