"A person cooking is a person giving: Even the simplest food is a gift."

Laurie Colwin

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Mamá's Pan Dulce (Panettone)


My mother died twelve years ago.  It’s strange:  in those twelve years there have been hard times when I’ve hoped and prayed for a sense of her presence and received nothing.  And times when I’ve not consciously wanted any such thing and unexpectedly been given it.  So obviously, the subtleties of communication with passed-on loved ones are totally lost on me.  When I don’t want to leave it to chance, when I want a shortcut to connection and memory and loving vibes, I open up Ma’s cookbook and cook.

Opening up Ma’s cookbook is invariably a bittersweet experience – particularly seeing her beautiful strong script before infirmity made her elegant hand shaky – but nonetheless curiosity always gets the better of me.  It isn’t just a cookbook, but a book where she jotted down all kinds of things, including clothing designs and the measurements of the women she was making them for.  This means, alas, that I know what my measurements were back in 1985.  Dammit!  Not all tears are for you, ma!

But I digress.

It is the time of year when I open up her cookbook and make her recipe for pan dulce and give thanks.  In Spanish, pan dulce means “sweet bread”, which means that throughout the Spanish-speaking nations you will encounter all kinds of sweet breads called pan dulce.  In Argentina, however, it only means one thing:  the traditional sweet Christmas bread that the myriad Italian migrants brought with them.  Panettone.

Homemade panettone bears only a passing resemblance to the (admittedly tempting on account of the fancy packaging) bought ones.  Commercial ones are airy and dry, with the occasional raisin for interest.  Made at home, they are rich, studded with fruit and nuts – particularly pine nuts – throughout, and most of all, fragrant.  The moment I combine orange blossom water, vanilla, and brandy, the combined scent, heady and exotic, rises up to my nostrils and I whisper, “It’s Christmas”. 

Despite the yeast, pan dulce/panettone is also a boon for the harried cook.  While we all know that fruitcakes and plum puddings need to be made at least a month in advance to mature and be at their best, panettone doesn’t.  It can be made the day you intend to eat it, or the day before.  Or a week before, and kept wrapped in cellophane.  Or six months before and frozen.  Leftovers are rare.  Any that don’t get snarfed make the world’s best French toast or bread pudding.

The instructions for this pan dulce/panettone are for a mixer, but it isn’t necessary.  This isn’t a particularly difficult dough to work, it’s just that because I usually make a minimum of six loaves, I’ve streamlined the process.  And I’ve streamlined the recipe, too.   You should hear the conversations I have had with Spirit Ma over her imprecise recipe:

“How much fruit, Ma?”
“As much as you like.”
“What do you mean?”
“As much as the dough will take.”
“Sigh… OK.  How many loaves will this make?”
“One.  Maybe two.  Or three.”
“What about the brandy?  The mazahar?  The vanilla?”
“Of course.  How hot should the oven be?”
“The normal temperature.”

Death never stopped a person being frustrating.  Or providing you with the best darned Christmas treat you ever had.


The fruit doesn't have to be perfectly spread, just relatively even.
When you've finished rolling, folding, and rolling and folding again, the fruit should be evenly distributed throughout.  Remember:  each mouthful must contain tidbits!
The scaled balls of dough in their giant paper cases.  I actually imported these, which yes, makes me a little insane since carrying them as hand luggage through a 14-hour flight without them crushing is the stuff of which Hollywood blockbusters are made.
Slashed and brushed with eggwash (yes, you're right, I need a new scalpel).

Behold!  Burnished perfection.

A word on the “fragrances”.  First, the brandy:  while it gives a particular flavour, the brandy’s real role here is to react with the yeast and give it a boost.  This is much needed since this is a dough rich in butter, sugar, and eggs, which affects a dough’s ability to rise.  (No, you cannot use extra yeast:  it’ll just taste yeasty and overferment the dough, giving you a dry, and crumbly loaf.)  Next, the orange blossom water (mazahar):  I have used a lot here, but depending on the quality, you may need to use a lot less.  As a rough rule, the smaller the bottle, the stronger it is.  If you buy yours in tiny 50ml bottles that cost you a decent amount of cash, you may only need half as much, but my big 500ml bottle isn’t that concentrated.  On no account, not EVER, substitute orange extract; use the zest of an orange, instead (but make it a point to find mazahar before Christmas next year). 

Makes 3 loaves

1 kg. flour, plus a few tablespoons for the fruit
2 1/2 tsp. instant yeast
1/4 tsp. salt
150g. sugar
150g. butter, softened
3 eggs
1 cup warm milk
1 tbsp. brandy
1 tbsp. orange blossom water (mazahar)
1 tsp. vanilla essence
500g. mixed dried and candied fruit, and nuts (see below)
1/4 cup melted butter, extra

What you do:
1.  Place flour, yeast and salt in mixer bowl.  Give a few turns with the K beater.  Add sugar, and give another few turns to combine.  With motor running, add butter.  Mix until butter is mixed in.  Add eggs, milk that has been mixed with brandy, orange blossom water and vanilla, and enough water to make a soft dough.  Replace K beater with dough hook, and knead for 5 minutes.  Place dough in a greased bowl, cover, and allow to rise in a warm place until doubled.
2.  Toss mixed fruit and nuts with flour.  This will allow them to disperse evenly through the dough.  Turn the oven on so that it is just barely warm.   (If you have a gas oven, the pilot light is enough.)  Tip dough out onto floured work surface and pat out flat.  Distribute fruit over the surface and roll up.  Roll out with rolling pin; fold in three, and roll out again.  Repeat this a few times to distribute fruit through dough.  Scale dough (see below) and divide in three.  Form dough into neat mounds and place in paper panettone moulds or tall greased pans.  Place in oven and allow to rise.  When breads are 3/4 of the way to doubled, slash tops with a scalpel or samurai-sharp knife, and brush carefully with eggwash.
3.  Place breads in warm oven and crank it up to 180oC.  (This method of only partly rising and putting into gradually heating oven givens oven spring like nobody’s business – trust me.)  Bake 30 minutes, until risen and lightly golden.  Drizzle with melted butter and bake another 15-20 minutes, until tops are deeply coloured and breads sound hollow when tapped on the base.  Cool on wire racks completely before serving.

NOTE:  The fruit and nuts you use are up to you, but you should include some glacé/candied fruit, lots of pinenuts, and chopped walnuts or pecans for bite.  “Scaling” is a fancy term for weighing out individual portions of dough to get a consistent size.  To scale these loaves, I weighed the dough (it was about 2.4kg) and divided that number by three (800g).  I divided the dough in three and weighed each portion to make sure it weighed 800g.  Behold, three loaves the exact same size.

Yumbo McGillicutty!

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