Tasteful and tasty holiday gifts are everywhere

December 14, 2018

Have you finished your holiday shopping? Or maybe you thought you were finished but just received an invitation to a party and now you need to find an appropriate hostess gift. At this time of year, the ideal present is something edible, and a wide range of options is available at bakeries and grocery stores as well as places like Marshalls, HomeGoods or Kitchen & Company.

One delicious example is panettone, as seen in the photo of a slice already missing a bite. Although it’s called either a bread or a cake, this Milanese specialty is not overly sweet. The delicate loaf has a signature domed shape and takes several days to make. Similar to a sourdough, the acidic dough must be proofed and cured to create its distinctive fluffy texture.

Panettone is baked in a coated paper wrapper and packaged in brightly colored boxes. Most are studded with candied orange, citron and raisins, and flavored with lemon zest. Some feature chocolate or caramel, so you’ll need to translate the ingredient list from Italian (or interpret the images on the box) to select the variety you want.

When our friend Lina brought us a loaf, we ate it toasted with butter alongside a cup of tea, and drenched in sweet egg batter for a different take on French toast. You can also use panettone to make bread pudding, a good way to use up any pieces that have started to go stale. Once you’ve cut the loaf, keep it tightly wrapped, as it quickly dries out.

Before I give you another holiday gift idea, you might enjoy learning some of the urban legends behind the name, panettone. The first claims that since panetto is a small cake, panettone must be a “large cake.” Another suggestion from the 18th century is that the name is “pan de ton,” or bread of luxury. The most well-accepted origin story involves a clerical hat called “pane” which had the same domed shape the bread has today.

My favorite story is about a duke’s cook who had prepared a lavish feast for a group of nobles and forgot about the dessert, which burned in the oven. The kitchen boy, Toni, offered up the sweet cake he had baked for himself. The tender, citrus-flavored cake filled with raisins was a hit. When asked the name of the dessert, the cook said it was “pan de Toni” or Toni’s bread, and that’s why we call it panettone.

In addition to the vast array of panettone on sale for the holidays, you’ll also find all sorts of specialty cookies and candies in festive, beribboned boxes. And, if you’re looking for something to drink with a slice of cake or simply to sip on its own, purveyors of adult beverages also have a celebratory selection. Choices range from Dogfish Head Craft Brewery’s IPAs for the Holidays to wine gift baskets from Harry & David to Ragged Branch Distillery’s Wheated Bourbon.

I’ve included a recipe from the folks at Ragged Branch for a complex cocktail featuring salted vanilla maple syrup (also delicious over ice cream) and walnut-infused bourbon. For those of you interested in trying a panettone recipe, I’ve included instructions for a rich French toast that will give you a warm start on a cold winter’s day.

Ragged Branch Walnut Old Fashioned 

2 oz Walnut Bourbon 
4 dashes orange bitters 
1 t salted vanilla maple syrup 

Stir ingredients with ice until chilled. Strain into an old-fashioned glass over one large ice cube. Garnish with orange peel.

Walnut Bourbon 

1 C Ragged Branch Wheat Bourbon 
1/2 C chopped walnuts 

Combine bourbon and walnuts in a sealable container and soak for 1 week. Strain and discard walnuts. Store bourbon in a glass container with a tightly fitted lid.

Salted Vanilla Maple Syrup 

1/2 C maple syrup 
1/2 t vanilla extract 
1 oz warm water 
pinch kosher salt 

Combine maple syrup and vanilla extract in a small glass container; set aside. In a small bowl, dissolve salt in water. Pour water into container with syrup. Cover tightly and store in the refrigerator.

Panettone French Toast 

4 1-inch slices panettone 
2 eggs 
1/3 C half & half 
1/2 t cinnamon 
1/8 t nutmeg 
1 t sugar 
1/4 t orange zest 
2 T butter 

Arrange panettone slices on a piece of waxed paper in a single layer. After 10 minutes, turn over slices. After 10 minutes, combine remaining ingredients (except butter) in a measuring cup. Whisk briskly until thoroughly combined. Melt butter in a nonstick skillet over medium heat. Pour egg batter into a pie plate and dip each slice of bread, turning once to coat both sides evenly. Place the dipped bread slices in the skillet in a single layer and cook until lightly browned. Turn and cook the other side. Serve with maple syrup. Yield: 2 servings.