panettone Montreal

Panettone: The mysterious Italian fruitcake explained and reviewed

A Montreal panettone taste test PLUS a little history lesson about one of the world’s most challenging baked goods.

Panettone is the Mount Everest of baking.

Yes, the mysterious Italian fruitcake packaged in flashy and sometimes gaudy hat boxes is widely considered to be among the most challenging items to bake. In many ways, this seasonal dessert is not worth the herculean effort required to make one and yet, if you have ever eaten a perfect slice of panettone, you know there is almost nothing else like it. Much like climbing the actual Mount Everest, there’s almost no point — why bother scaling the world’s highest peak? Nobody would think less of you for having only summited K2. Many exceptional bakers will never attempt the panettone, but for some, it’s a point of pride. To scale the highest peak or to bake the hardest cake is to declare oneself an expert — an echelon above. 

To fully understand panettone, you need to understand its history. It’s a showstopper — a 15th-century baking flex. Panettone was originally created to be a physical embodiment of wealth and status. The cake itself is predicated on being made with the most expensive ingredients possible and requiring an otherworldly level of know-how to bake. In the 15th century, the cake was made entirely with wheat flour, a rarity as most of the era’s flour was derived from rye and spelt. The candied fruits — a defining characteristic of the panettone — had to be transported from hundreds of miles away, even purportedly from outside the borders of modern-day Italy. 

Montreal panettone
Photos by Matthew Perrin

The ancestral home of panettone is Milan and a significant portion of the world’s panettone production still takes place there, with cakes being packaged in their ornate boxes and shipped around the world to fill artisanal Italian grocers and big-box stores alike. The majority of panettoni, however, are not produced in Italy at all, but rather in Brazil and Peru. In the late 1800s, the government of Brazil began an intensive agricultural colonization campaign that allotted land to Europeans willing to immigrate to Brazil and farm. Over a span of 20 years, more than 100,000 Italians would emigrate to Brazil — today the Italian population of Brazil is over 30 million. These immigrants brought with them cultural traditions and history, including panettone, which over the course of 150 years, give or take, has become a deeply ingrained part of South American culture. In Brazil and Peru, panettone is enjoyed year-round, and between both countries, more than 200,000 tons of panettone are produced for distribution to over 50 countries each year. 

Inexpensive and mass-produced as they may be, they are still authentically Italian and follow the classic Milanese recipe. In fact, the first man to mass-produce panettone was a Milanese baker by the name of Angelo Motta. In the 1930s, Motta added a 100-foot conveyor belt to his bakery expressly for the purpose of mass manufacturing his iconic panettone. Today, Motta is still a household name. Recently, in the way that Roman pizza, obscure amari and Zeppole have again come to the fore, panettone, too, is having its revival. Young bakers, often wishing to test their mettle, are attempting to revive the artisanal craft of panettone-making. 

In Montreal, one baker leading the movement is Jeffrey Finkelstein of Hof Kelsten, who’s entering his seventh year of panettone production. While he might not be a purist when it comes to panettone, he is without question an obsessive. Finkelstein uses non-traditional French candied fruit and artisanal chocolate but he firmly believes that the key to making good panettone is to study under a master — as he did over a decade ago. His mentor, Oriol Balaguer, is considered one of Spain’s best bakers and won the country’s illustrious award for the best artisanal panettone in 2017. Before dismissing this award for being of Spanish and not Italian provenance, it’s important to mention that Spain, similarly to South America, also has a long-standing love affair with the Milanese fruitcake. Over many years, Finkelstein learned how the dough should look, feel and most importantly smell during the various stages of the process. To this day, Finkelstein still troubleshoots dough issues with his mentor, despite being considered one of Montreal’s authorities on the subject. For his panettone, balance is key. All factors must be meticulously considered: the amount of fat (butter) weighed against the acidity (both lactic and acetic occurring during the fermentation process) and the sweetness of the candied fruit. But most important of all, and this is true for all panettone, is the structure of the crumb. 

Hof Kelsten, Fiasconaro, Borsari

Therein lies the real difference-maker when it comes to panettone — some will argue it’s about the purity (or creativity) of the fillings and flavours. Purists will turn up their noses at a cake filled with chocolate or custard, or a cake made anywhere outside of Italy. Others crave the perfumed aroma of the modestly-priced Italian imports that get a spritz of preservation agent before the long flight overseas. Others still will debate levels of sweetness, acidity and moisture. But at the end of the day, it’s the way the cake is held together that speaks volumes of its maker. The crumb of a truly great panettone easily pulls apart in delicate strands that are impossibly light. This is in part due to a consistently irregular crumb (it’s a complicated cake and I know that sounds vague, but bear with me). The crumb is irregular in that there are air pockets throughout the cake that extend from its centre and continue, bubble by bubble, to the very limit of the crust. Contrary to the big sexy air-pockets one looks for in sourdough, you want delicate and small bubbles evenly dispersed throughout the cake. When the right crumb consistency is achieved, the cake takes on a cotton candy-like texture that melts in your mouth as you eat it. It’s an incredible sensation. 

So without unceremoniously cutting into cakes at the store, how can you know which panettoni are of quality and which are simply sweet cakes in a flashy box? The short answer is research, combined with a bit of trial and error. However, to make choosing a panettone a bit easier, I’ve acquired three pannetoni, each representing a particular style and price point. I’ll go ahead and get this out of the way now — there is no cheap panettone on this list. Building on the Everest metaphor, if a naturally leavened classic pannetone is Everest, an $8 panettone collecting dust on the grocery store shelf is an Everest fridge magnet. Regardless of how it’s manufactured, the cake remains incredibly difficult to make and so you have to ask yourself where is my money going? Like all Italian cooking, value is derived from knowledge (and tradition) and quality of ingredients. After all my research  I am of the opinion that a panettone should cost at least $20, at a bare minimum.

Fiasconaro Panettone Pandorato

panettone Fiasconaro pandorato

This is a best-of-both-worlds kind of panettone. By that I mean it combines the characteristics of panettone and pandoro (the other, star-shaped Italian Christmas cake). Fiasconaro is a Sicilian bakery but has long since established itself as an affordable luxury panettone maker. Perhaps best known for their flamboyant partnership with Dolce & Gabbana, the one I tasted comes from their classic product line. This panettone is naturally leavened but any sense of fermentation is obstructed by the overwhelming smell of confectioners sugar. On the palate, there is a faint sense of acidity, but it’s really all about the sweetness. Because this is a pandoro-panettone, hybrid there is an absence of fruit, which is a pro if you don’t like candied fruit, but definitely a con if you’re looking for a real sense of balance. The crumb of the cake is very light and airy, which is enjoyable, but it gets a bit stodgy as you chew it — it lacks that melt in your mouth quality. Overall, it’s a good, sweet cake but it lacks the grandeur of a great panettone and is probably best enjoyed dunked in coffee. (Milano’s, $22)

Borsari Panettone Classico

Borsari Panettone Classico

This is 2020’s panettone of the year according to the Federazione Internazionale Pasticceria Gelateria Ciccolateria — Italy’s authority on the subject. This is a truly delicious panettone, but as sacrilegious as this may sound, the FIPGC’s stamp of approval is really just an indication that it checks all the traditional boxes. Borsari’s version is plump and squat and deliberately less adorned than Hof’s or Fiasconaro’s — it looks a bit like a super-sized hot cross bun. Cutting into it, one can’t help but notice that it has a beautiful, lush, golden-yellow crumb, a product of the famously pigmented yolks of (high quality) Italian eggs. The fruit is in much larger pieces, fitting with the rustic appearance of the whole cake. Giant, moist sultanas are interwoven with candied squares of lemon, orange and cedro (a pithy citrus fruit similar to lemon). The crumb is spectacular with a tight matrix of small bubbles that extend to the limits of the crust. The crumb pulls away in amazingly tender ribbons and the flavour is rich and eggy like a well-made brioche. Overall, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a classic panettone better than Borsari’s. The crumb is soft and moist (the perfect retort to those who think panettoni are dry and tasteless) and the flavour is deep and rich. This is a great traditional panettone and for less than $40, it’s maybe one of the best deals out there despite being a bit in-the-box. (Milano’s, $37.50)

Hof Kelsten 

panettone Hof Kelsten

Cutting into the cake, you notice immediately that the structure of the crumb is perfect. From the outermost edge of the crust to the centre of the bread, there are millions of tiny bubbles and a notable absence of density. The cake is visibly airy. The top of the panettone has a sweet and crunchy “craquelin” which helps offset the cake’s defining characteristic — its acidity. Hof’s panettone is naturally leavened and retains much of the lactic acid produced during the dough’s fermentation. Personally, I rather enjoy the tanginess that combines nicely with the high-acidity chocolate, perfumed candied fruit and high-fat crumb. It’s a beautiful example of balance.  The cake pulls apart elegantly revealing those beautiful vertical threads of crumb — it’s a marvel to see how intricate the crumb structure is. This panettone is noticeably taller, about an inch and a half taller than the Fiasconaro, and it smells like fresh bread. The cloyingly sweet smell of confectioners sugar is completely absent from Hof’s panettone. Both the fruit (which is in very small pieces) and chocolate hold their own and offer delicious variety to each bite. Overall, every element of this cake is of the highest quality — it’s an absolute delight to eat and well worth the $56 price tag. (Hof Kelsten bakery, $36 to $56)

The big takeaways I’ve gleaned from researching and eating various panettoni are relatively obvious. The first is you get what you pay for — shelling out $50 for a heroic feat of baking (whether an Italian import or a local production) shouldn’t be a big leap — and paying less than $20 is almost sure to guarantee you mediocrity. The other takeaway: an Italian product isn’t necessarily better. Panettone is made all over the world, but the recipes remain very similar. Like wine, it’s best to know the producer — when you buy a panettone, you’re paying for the expertise and principles of the person who made it.

For what it’s worth, I like Hof’s panettone the best. I like the crumb, I like the crispy craquelin and I love that tangy taste, but I certainly wouldn’t kick the Borsari out of bed — which is likely where I’ll be polishing off my remaining kilo of panettone. ■

This article was originally published on Dec. 16, 2020 and updated on Dec. 23, 2021.

This feature story originally appeared in the December 2020 issue of Cult MTL.

For more on the food and drink scene in Montreal, please visit the Food & Drink section.