Origins of the Panettone, Legends and History

Panettone is an inevitable holiday dessert on Italian tables whose history and origins are steeped in myth, legend and mystery. We present herein both the legends and folk …

Panettone is an inevitable holiday dessert on Italian tables whose history and origins are steeped in myth, legend and mystery.

We present herein both the legends and folk stories along with some historical facts.

The Sforza Legend

Stories handed down over the centuries from the Sforza of Milan era around the 1500s tell the story of Toni, an enterprising kitchen lad.

It’s been said that during the celebration of Christmas Eve, the official chef of the noble Sforza family burned the cake he was preparing for the diners.
At that point Toni, the kitchen boy, decided to try to solve the problem by using a loaf of yeast that he had kept for Christmas, working it with flour, eggs, raisins, candied fruit and sugar, kneading everything together to obtain a sweet, beautifully leavened and soft bread.

That improvised sweet bread was extremely appreciated by the Sforza family, who then decided to call it “Pan di Toni” making it the official dessert of the Christmas banquet.

The stories of Sister Ughetta, and of Ughetto degli Atellani

These are two other narratives linked to the birth of panettone…

Sister Ughetta was a cook in a very poor convent and for Christmas dinner she decided to prepare a dessert that could put her sisters in good spirits using bread dough as a base, then adding eggs, candied fruit, raisins and sugar … and there is the panettone!

Before putting it in the oven, she inserted a cross to bless it, becoming a dessert so appreciated by the people of the Milanese region whom then replenished the coffers of the convent in exchange for the tasty sweet bread.

In the Ughetto degli Atellani’s story, however, we return to the Milanese court of the Sforza, where it is said that Ughetto, the duke’s falconer, fell in love with Adalgise, daughter of the baker Toni.

Given the difference in social class, Ughetto began working on behalf of the father of his beloved in disguise and understood that the family needed financial help to live. So, one night, he created a dessert with bread dough, to which he added sugar, butter, eggs, citron and raisins.

That sweet bread immediately became a huge success, making possible the union of two lovers thanks to Ughetto’s father who gave his blessing to the wedding after witnessing the incredible appreciation of his son’s invention.

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The panettone in historical records

Aside from the tales, there’s reliable information on the origins of panettone based on old documents.

The first of these records is from Giorgio Valagussa, tutor of the Sforzas, and dates back to 1470. This writing speaks of the “Rite of the Log”, when in every house, at Christmas, a large log of wood was placed to burn on the fire and then each diner ate slices of wheat bread offered by the head of the family, who kept one for the following year as an omen for good luck.

That bread represented something very unique, especially for the less well-off as wheat flour was a precious ingredient reserved for the rich and forbidden to the simple folks during the rest of the year, remaining an exclusive luxury for nobles. Only on the evening of Christmas Eve was everyone allowed to enjoy that sweet bread, called “Pan de Sciori” or “Pan de Ton”, I.e. “Lords’ Bread”, “luxury bread”, also made up of sugar, eggs and butter.

The classic recipe for panettone did not yet exist; it arrived more than a hundred years later, in 1549, when a chef from Ferrara wrote down the ingredients for panettone: flour, butter, sugar, eggs, milk and rose water, emphasizing the importance of good leavening and the round shape.

Raisins and candied fruit are missing from the Ferrara cook’s list, which can then be traced to 1599 in the notes of a register of the Borromeo College of Pavia regarding the expenses for the Christmas lunch.

When did panettone start being called that?

In 1606 the “panetton” began to appear in the Milanese dialect, for a large sweet Christmas bread, still flat and similar to a focaccia in shape.

The candied fruit, on the other hand, was introduced the following year in the kitchen of Giovanni Vialardi, chef of the Savoy rulers, making panettone a festive dessert not only for the Milanese, but for all of Northern Italy.

Not only in Milan anymore

Starting from the second half of the 19th century, many pastry chefs from all over Italy started to create and produce panettone by hand.

In the first post-war period, the recipe was enriched with sourdough, more eggs and more butter, as well as a mold that allows the dough to rise upwards.


Loosely translated from the Italian blog post:

To learn more about Panettone

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