By Suzanne Dunaway
t’s hell to be lonely in Rome, particularly at Christmas and New Year’s. Rome is a place for friends, lovers, and families. But this particular year we were in a funk. We had rented a villa for six months to be near my stepchildren (from my husband’s marriage to a Roman), and New Year’s Eve was about to ring in.
There we were, as my mother used to say, all dolled up with nowhere to go. I envied our landlord and neighbor, one Principe Ruffo, a very down-to-earth architect and a more-than-accessible prince. He was toodling off in an overstuffed car to Sicily with his family calling goodbyes out the windows. I could almost smell the scent of oranges and the sea, hear the children laughing as they gathered their horns and clackers for the stroke of midnight. I wanted to be one of them, eating cassata and pasta with sarde.
I imagined other friends in Spoleto in their snug country house pouring steaming polenta into flowered plates and sitting around their tall hearth with bruschette, toasting one another with glasses of spumante.
My husband guided me through the streets of the center in a gracious attempt to lift both our moods. We marveled at Rome’s decorated shop windows. We gazed with longing at parties of diners, ubiquitous plates of roast meats before them.
Enough was enough. We returned to the comfort of our welcoming villa where we attempted to polish our tarnished spirits with good champagne, caviar, and cannelloni. With the last bite of panettone, bell towers all over Rome rang in the new year.
On New Year’s Day, my husband’s ex and her newfound love rang to wish us buon anno, and invited us to lunch and what turned out to be an afternoon of games with family and friends that, fortified by champagne, platters of cotechino and lenticchie, might have lasted a year.
The assembled company asked me if I’d please bring my special panettone, with pistachios and dried cranberries. I was touched. Suddenly the day grew brighter, our champagne bubblier, and the word lonely was left behind to keep company with the year gone by.
Suzanne's Perfect Panettone
Yield: 4 small or 2 large panettone
For the starter:
1 cup warm milk; 2 1/2 tablespoons active dry yeast (a cube of lievito); 1 1/2 cups flour
For the dough:
All of the starter; 1 cup butter (2 sticks), softened or melted and cooled; 1 cup sugar
4 eggs plus two yolks (whites reserved for glaze, if desired); 4 1/2 cups unbleached flour plus a little more if needed; 1 tablespoon each fresh grated orange and lemon rind; 1/2 cup mixed fresh candied lemon and orange peel (optional); 1 cup dried cranberries or mixed fruits; 1 cup raw pistachios, toasted and chopped medium (about the size of small peas); 2 tablespoons rum; 1 teaspoon vanilla;1 teaspoon salt.
— Half an hour before mixing the dough, stir together the warm milk, yeast, flour and 1 teaspoon of the sugar in a small glass bowl. Cover and set aside.
— Toast the pistachios: Heat the oven to 350 F (180C). Spray pistachios with water, sprinkle with a pinch of two of salt, and toast for 10 minutes. Cool for 15 minutes. In a bowl, mix the flour, lemon and orange rind, candied peel (if using), cranberries, pistachios, rum, vanilla, and salt.
— In a large mixing bowl, or using an electric mixer, cream the butter and the rest of the sugar until fluffy. Add the eggs and beat well. Add the flour mixture, and mix on low speed for a minute or two. Gradually add the milk sponge, and continue to beat on low speed until all ingredients are incorporated. The dough should look buttery and not stick to your fingers.
— Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead for 1 to 2 minutes, pushing the dough away from you with the heel of your hands, and then folding it back over on itself. The dough will be smooth and satiny.
— Transfer the dough to an oiled bowl, cover, and let rise in a warm place for about 2 hours or until doubled. Turn the dough out gently on a smooth surface, and divide it into two equal pieces, keeping as much air in the dough as possible. Let the pieces rest, covered with a clean dish towel, for about 10 minutes. Shape each piece into a smooth ball, and place in a well-buttered 1-pound coffee can or deep mold about 4 to 5 inches wide. The dough should come about halfway up the mold. You can use a 2-pound tomato can (or panettone mold, found in some kitchen shops) for one large panettone.
— Brush loaves with some of the reserved egg white, beaten a little if desired. Cover and let the loaves rise again for 1 hour or until just slightly less than double in size. The dough may be active at this point and rise quickly, so you may not need the full hour’s rising.
— Heat the oven to 400 F (220C). Uncover the loaves, place the cans
in the oven and turn down the heat to 350 F (180C). Bake 40 minutes for large coffee cans, 30 to 35 minutes for the smaller cans. Cool for 15 minutes, then carefully remove the loaves from cans, and place the panettoni on racks to cool completely. Serve toasted on Christmas day or during holidays with Vin Santo. Panettone will keep fresh for up to a week in a plastic bag. Or freeze for up to 6 months.
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