It has a cupola shape which extends from a cylindrical base and is usually about 12-15 cm high for a 1 kg panettone. Other bases may be used, such as an octagon, or a frustum with star section shape more common to pandoro. It is made during a long process which involves the curing of the dough, which is acidic, similar to sourdough. The proofing process alone takes several days, giving the cake its distinctive fluffy characteristics. It contains candied orange, citron and lemon zest, as well as raisins, which are added dry and not soaked. Many other variations are available such as plain or with chocolate . It is served in slices, vertically cut, accompanied with sweet hot beverages or a sweet wine, such as Asti or Moscato. In some regions of Italy, it is served with Crema di Mascarpone, a cream made from mascarpone cheese, eggs, and typically a sweet liqueur such as Amaretto; if mascarpone cheese is unavailable, zabaglione is sometimes used as a substitute to Crema di Mascarpone.
The origins of this cake appear to be ancient, dating back to the Roman Empire, ancient Romans sweetened a type of leavened bread with honey. Throughout the ages this "tall, leavened fruitcake" makes cameo appearances in the arts: it is shown in a sixteenth century painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, is possibly mentioned in a contemporary recipe book written by Bartolomeo Scappi, personal chef to popes and emperors during the time of Charles V.
The word "panettone" derives from the Italian word "panetto," a small loaf bread. The augmentative Italian suffix "-one" (pronounced "o-neh") changes the meaning to "large bread."
One suggests that the word derives from the Milanese, "pan del ton," meaning "bread of luxury."
Another states that a 15th century legend from Milan credits the invention to the nobleman falconer Ughetto Atellani, who fell in love with Adalgisa, the daughter of a poor baker named Toni. To win her over, the nobleman disguised himself as a baker and invented a rich bread in which he added to the flour and yeast, butter, eggs, dried raisins and candied lemon and orange peel.
The duke of Milan, Ludovico il Moro Sforza (1452-1508), agreed to the marriage, which was held in the presence of Leonardo da Vinci, and encouraged the launch of the new cake-like bread: Pan de Toni (or Toni's bread).
Another legend credits the cake being invented in the court of the Sforzas , but with the following story:
It was Christmas and the court cook had no dessert to offer. So the guests were given a sweet bread baked by a mere kitchen boy, called Toni, which won general praise. Rather than steal the praise for himself, the cook congratulated his assistant and named it after him.
In the early 20th century, two enterprising Milanese bakers begin to produce Panettone in large quantities to the rest of Italy. In 1919 Angelo Motta started producing his eponymous brand of cakes. It was also Motta who revolutionised the traditional panettone by giving it its tall domed shape by making the dough rise three times, or almost 20 hours, before cooking, giving it its now-familiar light texture. The recipe was adapted shortly after by another baker, Gioacchino Alemagna around 1925, who also gave his name to a popular brand that still exists today. The stiff competition between the two that then ensued led to industrial production of the cake-like bread. Nestlé took over the brands together in the late 1990's.
As a result of the fierce competition, by the end of World War II, panettone was cheap enough for anyone and soon became the country's leading Christmas sweet. Northern Italian immigrants to Argentina and Brazil also brought their love of Panettone, and Panettone is enjoyed for Christmas with Hot Cocoa or liquor during the holiday season, which became a mainstream tradition in those countries.
In Argentina, Brazil, Chile (see: Pan de Pascua), Venezuela and especially in Peru, (known in Peruvian Spanish as "Panetón") where the son of immigrants from Caserta, Italy, Antonio D'Onofrio spawned his own brand, using the Alemagna formula, which he licensed, along with the packaging style. This brand, founded is now also owned by Nestlé and exported throughout Latin America. In recent years, Brazilian Panettoni have increased in quality and in popularity due to their low cost and abundance.
Although Panettone is quintessentially Milanese, it is more popular today in central and southern Italy, which accounts for 55% of sales, than in the Milan region in the north, with 45% of sales.
Manufacturers have tried over and over to offer new and better types by launching panettoni stuffed with chocolate chips, cream or even lemon liqueur, or limoncello. The traditional recipe remains the favourite, with 50 million sold for Christmas in 2002.