Food tells us Christmas is coming. Huge boxes of mangoes and cherries appear, butchers call for pre-orders of ham, and pyramid-shaped stacks of panettone appear in grocery stores all over the country.

Most of the panettones you see are imported from Italy and, to ensure they are soft when you crack open a box, are made with preservatives and sugar to ensure a long shelf life. These cylindrical bread-cake hybrids with a dome-shaped top, have a fluffy butter-and-egg-yolk quality of brioche and are sweet, with sultanas and candied orange peel mixed through the dough.

But over the past few years, Australian bakers have been challenging the traditional Milanese Christmas bread stereotype by making their own versions. Out are the preservatives and high sugar count; in are local ingredients and a consistency more like sourdough and croissant than cake. In other words, they are a far cry from the loaves we get from overseas.

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“I’m not dogmatic about anything; I think supermarket panettones have an important place on the table,” says Boris Portnoy of Melbourne’s All Are Welcome bakery. “There are some really good commercially made panettone. But for me, speaking as a baker, I think panettone is an art form – and there are local people with amazing knowledge putting a lot of effort and money into making panettone.”

How it’s made
Making panettone is a complex process, and the success or failure of an artisanal panettone relies on the lievito madre – a firm, low-hydration sourdough starter.

“You work the panettone starter in a different way from any other sourdough,” says baker Franco Villalva, from To Be Frank bakery in Melbourne. “It requires a temperature of 16 to 18 degrees Celsius, it needs to be fed every 24 hours, and has to have a pH level of 4.1 acidity. If that’s not right, your panettone won’t work. It will come out cakey, it won’t grow, or it will be too sour.”

Once the correct pH is measured, the lievito madre needs to be fed three times over nine hours to prepare for panettone-making, then the first mix can begin. Different bakers follow different recipes, but panettone dough has just a handful of core ingredients: flour, water, sugar, egg yolks and butter.

“After the first mix, the dough ferments between 12 and 16 hours. It needs to triple in size,” says Marco Andreotti of Perth’s All Grain Artisan Bakery. That growth is key. If the dough fails to achieve sufficient volume, that’s a sign that the lievito madre has the wrong pH.

“The next day it’s ready for the second mix. You add more flour and egg yolks, honey, more butter, and we add vanilla. Once you’ve got that solid base, you can add ingredients like chocolate or candied fruits,” Andreotti says.

After resting, the bread is given its final shape and placed in a paper mould to rest again for six to eight hours before baking. To preserve the dome shape that develops during baking, the panettone is suspended upside down using a pair of two-pronged forks called spilloni. “The structure is so fragile, if you don’t hang it upside down, it will just collapse,” Andreotti says. “After hanging 10 to 12 hours until it’s cool, then it’s ready to be packed away.”

Then spike with …
Panettone flavours vary widely, from traditional loaves with candied fruit, to chocolate, cherries and nuts. This year, To Be Frank and All Are Welcome are opting for a traditional approach to their panettones.

Aplenty makes a signature “babkattone”, which is available for pre-order from December 4 until they sell out (they’re known to sell out quick, so get your order in ASAP). The panettone dough is covered with lashings of chocolate hazelnut spread before being braided, just like a babka.

Each year, Sydney seaside fine diner Icebergs collaborates with Sonoma Bakery to create its panettone. This year’s recipe is a combination of milk chocolate, brandied cherries and almonds. Past flavours have included green ants and Davidson plum. Sonoma is also selling a “cronettone” – yep, that’s a mini panettone made from croissant dough. The flaky dough is swirled with classic flavours of candied fruits and dark chocolate throughout.

“We want our panettone to be natural, and uniquely Australian,” says Alex Prichard, head chef at Icebergs. “When we started collaborating with Sonoma four years ago, there weren’t that many Australian panettones around. I honestly feel this one is one of the best in the country. It’s not dense, it feels more like a croissant, and it’s not overly sweet. It’s what you think panettone should be.”

There are no rules when it comes to eating panettone. “There’s a common misconception that you have to eat panettone with something to enjoy it, but you can do what you like,” says Andreotti. “You can match it with fresh cream, or custard, or you can just eat it as is.”

Panettone can also be eaten with butter, or with nothing at all – or topped with a scoop of gelato. There are some local makers even doing the scooping for you by making gelato-filled loaves.

“It’s an Italian tradition to have panettone with gelato inside – we’ve been doing it since we opened eight years ago,” says Kieran Tosolini of Sydney’s Rivareno Gelato. “Each gelato flavour is unique and intense, and you can taste what’s in it, so it’s easy to combine them together in panettone. Some favourites are hazelnut and chocolate or pistachio and chocolate.”

Panettone is high stakes
Portnoy says it requires years of experimentation and honing skills, plus significant investment in dedicated equipment. He does it for the challenge. “The technical aspect is so interesting. You’re growing a wholly different bacteria and it never changes its pH level. It’s a bit of a nerd thing, and that’s why I bake it, because it’s so interesting.”

Villalva says bakers have to be passionate. “Panettone makes you feel love and hate. You start at 4am, finish late and the next day you come back at 5am, praying the dough has increased in volume three times. If it hasn’t, you’re in trouble.

“It’s hard and time-consuming, it’s expensive to make and if you fail, the frustration is enormous. But more young bakers are learning to make this challenging product, and I know why. I remember the first time I tried real panettone, I thought, wow. This is another world.”

Where to buy panettone

Sydney
Wholegreen Bakery
Icebergs x Sonoma, available at Vic’s Meat
San Valentino Pasticceria
Rivareno Gelato

Brisbane
Gerbino's Italian Bakery

Melbourne
All Are Welcome
Baker D Chirico
To Be Frank
Brunetti
Cannoli Bar

Perth
All Grain Artisan Bakery

Adelaide
Bottega Gelateria
Panettone by Luis
Casa Carboni, available flavours include Classico, Cioccolato, Albicocche & Cioccolato Bianco Ivoire

This article was originally published on December 13, 2021. It has been updated to reflect new information and remove out-of-date details.