Learn the History and Differences between Italy’s Famous Christmas Cakes

For centuries, Christmas has inspired delicious creations of sweet cakes and bread to celebrate the season. In Italy, there are 3 popular cakes: Panettone, Pandoro, and Panforte. The country sells over 117 million Panettone and Pandoro cakes a year, with a worth of over 579 euros. Here are the histories and the differences between Italy’s famous Christmas cakes:

The History of Panettone

Meaning “big loaf” or “cake of luxury”, the history of panettone dates back centuries to the Middle Ages in northern Milan. There are conflicting legends detailing who exactly created the first cake.

One legend tells of a cook’s kitchen boy named Tony who offered his morning sweet bread to salvaged a burnt cake. The sweet bread was given as a dessert to for a noble dinner banquet, and the guests loved the flavors of orange zest and raisins. The cook then named the sweet bread “Pan de Toni”.

After World War II, the prices of panettone dropped which made it one of Italy’s most popular Christmas sweets. Lombard immigrants to South America brought the recipe with them to Argentina and Brazil where the tradition remains popular.

Panettone is often compared to fruitcake, but this version is light and airy because of the hours of risings. The sweet bread is filled with raisins and candied orange zest and shaped into a cupola or a dome with a cylindrical base.

Today, panettone is considered a top-level gift during the Christmas and New Year season because of the quality of ingredients. Many households prefer to buy it from artisan bakeries instead of baking it at home because of the number of hours and days it takes to prepare the sweet bread (between 20 hours to 3 days, or even one week). If you are looking for a special gift (or a gift to yourself), buy a panettone from your local artisan bakeshop to celebrate this Christmas season


The History of Pandoro

Aside from panettone, Pandoro is another popular and famous Christmas and New Year cake from Italy that also dates back to the Middle Ages. The sweet bread actually has Austrian origins as it was first found in the Hapsburg Court when it was known as “Vienna bread”.

Pandoro’s Italian origins are found in Verona where the recipe took a century to perfect. The name means “golden bread” because it was sweet bread were only served to the nobility and royals (white bread was only for the rice, and black bread occasionally for the lower classes).

The sweet bread is shaped like a frustum or an 8-pointed star that is coated with icing sugar to resemble the Italian Alps during Christmas.

As opposed to the raisin and candied fruits in panettone, pandoro is a simple buttery sweet bread that has a bright yellow color from the eggs and butter. The texture resembles panettone from the number of yeast risings. Pandoro is often served with a sweet spread like Nutella. Photo credit Giussepe Milo


The History of Panforte

Unlike a traditional cake or sweet bread like panettone and pandoro, Panforte draws comparisons to the British fruitcake. This Tuscan fruitcake dates back to 1205 in Siena, as it is also referred to as Siena Cake.

The cake was traditionally lined with communion wafers which leads food historians to believe it was originally created by convent nuns – in fact, many of Europe’s most popular desserts come from centuries’ old convents.

The Christmas cake with a chewy texture is a hybrid of fruitcake, candy, and honey cake filled with dried fruits and nuts and sometimes even chocolate. Photo credit Kim van Velzen


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