For centuries, people around the world have used sweet, fruit-filled breads to mark the holiday season. The custom has roots in pagan rituals, which often included offerings of bread during winter celebrations that later were incorporated into Christmas traditions. Celebratory breads came to be enriched with spices, dried fruits and sugar—at the time, luxury ingredients reserved for special purposes.
Italy’s panettone gets its lofty, slightly domed shape from an unusual finishing technique: It is hung upside down to cool after baking. This prevents the sourdough-based loaf—made over three days of mixing, leavening, baking and resting—from falling into itself and gives the finished bread a light texture. Originally from Milan, the name comes from the word panetto, or little loaf of bread. The bread typically is studded with dried fruits, particularly raisins, candied oranges, citron and lemon zest. Its airy crumb and lightly sweet flavor make it less heavy than most fruitcakes.
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Common in Spain and Mexico, these crown-shaped semisweet breads honor the three kings who visited the birth of Jesus. In fact, similar to Mardi Gras king cakes, they often are baked with a figurine of the baby Jesus hidden inside. The cakes are decorated with fruit “jewels”—figs, cherries, quince or dried and candied fruits. Typically, the gluteny dough, made from bread flour, is kneaded and left to rise twice before being formed by hand into a ring. Once baked, some versions are sliced horizontally and stuffed with whipped cream or custard.
To make this bread, a rich yeasted dough is slathered with a sweet filling, then rolled. The most common filling is walnuts, but variations include tarragon and poppy seeds. Though traditionally baked in a round earthenware mold, free-form shaping and baking now also is common. Similar baked goods can be found across Central and Eastern Europe, but Slovenia claims to have created the original, where bakers strive for an equal balance of bread to filling to keep the pastry tender and moist.
Similar to panettone, Italian pandoro is made from a long-fermented sourdough, but has no fruit. It also has a texture and crumb that are cakier and finer. Baked in a tall mold the shape of an eight-pointed star, the cake is thought to come from Verona, where it was known as pan d’oro, or bread of gold, because only nobility could afford the luxury of a bread enriched with eggs, butter and sugar. A dusting of powdered sugar is intended to evoke the snowy peaks of the Italian Alps.
First baked in Dresden during the early 15th century, this bread-like German fruitcake takes its name from its shape—a tapered oblong loaf meant to resemble a swaddled baby Jesus. The loaves are made from a slightly sweet yeasted dough studded with dried fruits, citrus peel and almonds. Also called Stollen or Weihnachtsstollen, it typically is seasoned with cardamom and cinnamon, heavily dusted with powdered sugar and filled with marzipan.