Hi everyone! How was your Christmas? Over here in Minneapolis, we had perfect winter weather: snow on the ground, partially sunny days, and “balmy” weather at night, also known as 30 degrees. Yes, in this northern latitude, 30 is considered warm. My parents flew in from Texas, and my sister traveled from California for a traditional white Christmas hosted by yours truly. Every year, my husband and I rotate where we spend Christmas, which has become a bit of a necessity given that so much of our extended family resides in other states! We have family in overseas in Argentina and in Alabama, California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Texas, Wisconsin, and of course Minnesota. Our great hope is that one day we will have a place large enough to host the entire clan comprised of all the different branches of the family, but until then, we are taking turns, and so each Christmas is different than the previous year.
Predictably, in the midst of so much change, my pull for tradition grows stronger, and some of the habits and dishes that are associated with the holidays become more set in stone than ever. So it was in that spirit that this year, I planned events and prepared dishes that I most closely associate with the holidays: decorating the Christmas tree; attending Reindeer Day in Linden Hills; visiting the tree lighting and carolers by the Wayzata Depot; checking out the Christmas exhibit at the American Swedish Institute; shopping at the European Christmas Market in St. Paul; sipping glogg and hot chocolate by the fire; seasoning and roasting the turkey; visiting the Gingerbread Wonderland at Norway House; attending Christmas services; making cranberry sauce with my Mom from scratch; baking homemade bread; and assembling a table of sweets for Nochebuena that include almond turrón, chocolates, and, of course, the classic Italian panettone from Milan.
My family was able to partake in most activities, and I kept assuring them that in no other place in the United States is Christmas as Christmasy as it is in Minnesota. We all know how much I love Minnesota, and although they are not particularly fond of the cold, my family did really admire all the wonderful holiday events in the Twin Cities. This year we couldn’t make it to Norway House, and we skipped out on the Christmas services. In truth, I made so many dishes that there really wasn’t more time left for additional events, and so I spent the bulk of my time chatting and playing games with my family. Of the many things we did, it would be hard to pick just one favorite, but I have to say sharing together in the Nochebuena meal and post-dinner treats was definitely a highlight.
Nochebuena means “Good Night” in Spanish, and is held on Christmas Eve: it is the biggest Christmas feast for most Hispanic and Latino households. There would be no Nochebuena without panettone, of course. I have not yet attempted to make panettone from scratch, partly because my Mom loves to get the panettone herself, ordering the genuine article from Italy, and partly because making the panettone is quite complex. Probably I will attempt to make it in a year when I am not hosting and cooking so many dishes, so I actually have room to learn.
Panettone is an Italian sweet bread from Milan, and it follows a long process that involves curing the dough, somewhat similar to sourdough. The curing and proofing takes several days, and is what gives the panettone its fluffy texture and domed shape. The traditional panettone contains candied orange, raisins, and lemon zest, but more recently there are many other variations out there for purchase, such as the plain pandoro, or panettone with chocolate or chestnuts, or even panettone al limoncello, which has limoncello crème and candied lemon. In some regions of Italy, the panettone is served with a crema di mascarpone, or a sweet liqueur such as amaretto.
Because Argentina had such a large number of Italian immigrants, most Argentine households adopted the Italian custom of panettone. In Spanish, we call it panetón, or pan dulce. Back when I lived in Buenos Aires, our Christmas gathering included nearly 30 relatives. We all lived about a half hour from each other, and got together monthly for birthdays, anniversaries, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, and of course in December, Christmas Eve (Nochebuena) and Christmas Day. Given that we were all geographically close, it was easy to host the celebration. In Buenos Aires we were just beginning summer, so the Nochebuena dinner would happen in the courtyard under the large blue atlas cedar tree that towered in the garden, and you could hear the crickets singing into the night. The advantage of a large gathering is that there are so many dishes assembled and shared that you can try a little bit of everything, and the whole feast would be consumed by the end of the night; but here in the US, the gatherings are much more modest in number, and so there can sometimes be a significant amount of leftovers, including the panettone.
To me, seeing a panettone dry up is practically a sin! To me, even worse than this would be to throw away a panettone that has survived the Christmas feast and gradually dried up before New Year’s Eve. Making this sweet bread takes so much work that even if it’s dry, I cannot bring myself to throw it away. It’s simply too good. So casting about for what I could do with the leftover panettone, it dawned on me that I could make a holiday-style bread pudding, and in this way I created this recipe. I wanted to retain the citrusy flavor of the panettone, as well as its wonderfully aromatic quality. For this reason, I decided to enhance the flavors of orange blossom and almond and candied orange to bring out all the goodness that the dried-up panettone still has in its crumb. The recipe is super easy. It does take a long time in the oven, but in terms of effort, it is toward the low end of the spectrum. It is very rich and it can make a wonderful dessert for New Year’s Eve or, if you don’t want to wait that long, you definitely can use the leftover panettone from Nochebuena for Christmas Day bread pudding brunch. In any case, my husband says this is one of the best things I’ve ever baked. It’s a creamy, rich bread pudding, and really does not need to be served with an additional sauce.
I hope you had a good Christmas and holiday season, and if for whatever reason you feel like something was missing from your celebration, this pudding might be just the ticket, a great way to wrap up all the holiday festivities and send off the year with a splash.
Panettone Bread Pudding
Prep time: 20 min.
Cook Time: 1 hour 20 min.
Cooling Time: 10 min.
- ¾ lbs Italian panettone (preferably Milanese style)
- 1 tbsp butter
- 2 eggs
- 3 egg yolks
- 2 ½ cups half-and-half
- 1 tsp vanilla
- ¼ tsp almond extract
- ¼ tsp orange liqueur
- 1 tbsp orange blossom water
- ¼ cup sugar
- 1/3 cup diced candied orange
- ¼ cup sliced almonds or filberts
- turbinado sugar (optional)
- Preheat the oven to 350°F.
- Cut the panettone loaf in ½ inch slices and place them on a cookie sheet, arranging them in a single layer.
- Toast the panettone in the oven for 5 minutes, if the panettone is already dry, or 10 minutes if your leftover panettone is still moist. Once the panettone is golden, remove from the oven and set aside.
- Meanwhile, in a bowl, whisk together the sugar, whole eggs, egg yolks, half and half, vanilla and almond extracts, and orange blossom water.
- Use the butter to grease and coat a 6 x 9 x 2 rectangular baking dish. Arrange the toasted panettone slices in the baking dish. I left my panettone untrimmed, so I arranged my slices to show the browned sides on the top. If you don’t like the brown crust, you can always trim it before arranging it in the pan.
- Pour the custard mixture over the arranged panettone slices and let it sit for 10 minutes so the panettone soaks up the liquid.
- Sprinkle the candied orange peel on the top, sides, and in between the panettone slices. Sprinkle the sliced almonds or filberts over the custard. If you want to use the turbinado sugar, sprinkle a light dusting now.
- After the panettone has sat in the custard for 10 minutes, place the baking dish into a large pan and carefully place it in the center rack of the oven. Add very hot or boiling water to the larger pan until it comes high enough to create a double bath, ½ to ¾ of the way up the side of the baking dish.
- Cover the baking dish with aluminum foil, cutting a few holes with a fork in the foil to allow the steam to escape.
- Bake the panettone bread pudding for 40 minutes, remove the foil, and bake uncovered for 40 additional minutes, or until the top of the pudding is a golden brown.
- Cool for 10 minutes before serving. I recommend serving it warm.