Panettone! Pannetone! Pannettone! (2021)

Originally published in 2017, I try to update this story annually. Here’s a preview of this year’s supplement.

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And now it is 2021. As I write this, we’re still in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic accompanied by its subsequent supply-chain issues, extended shipping times, inventory shortages, and inflation. Amazon is offering my two favorite imported 2.2 pound panettoni for $48 and $71 each. Nope, not this year.

If you’ve read my story, An Eggnog Excursus, you know that part of my obsession stems from the fact that this bewitching beverage evocative of joyous childhood memories is only available for an all-too-brief period each year. Unlike eggnog, some brands of panettone are available year-round, generally dozing in supermarkets and even bodegas, but they tend to be lackluster as compared with the treasures that miraculously appear during the holiday season. It’s like envisaging a standing rib roast for Christmas dinner and then being served pot roast instead. It’s not the end of the world, but it is a world away from what you had been eagerly anticipating for the better part of a year.

In the hopes of ferreting out a middle ground, I decided to explore three upscale markets in my neighborhood, specifically, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Wegmans.

My extremely biased opinion in a nutshell:

Whole Foods proffered a sampler pack of individual size panettoni in three varieties, Traditional, Limoncello, and Double Chocolate, and was the most disappointing product, faring little better than the stuff you see gathering dust year round on supermarket shelves; they were bready with a tight crumb and not particularly sweet or flavorful.

Trader Joe’s Panettone Classico (cutely Italian-branded as “Trader Giotto’s” like their EVOO), also single serving size, was better: more open crumb, properly sweet, and amply raisined, but still, not anything to write home to Mom about.

Now, how much of those two evaluations can be attributed to the size of the product itself? Is it even possible to make a proper panettone that’s so diminutive? Or is this a case that raises the correlation vs causation question: just because they’re both baked in a pint-sized format doesn’t necessarily explain why they’re both less than stellar. Or does it?

Wegmans, however, saved the day. A larger (about six inches in diameter, serves six) virtually unbranded entry, this airy, buttery baby (see photo) boasted a proper candied orange peel+raisin count, an appropriate degree of sweetness, and an almond glaze topping that was topnotch – sweet and crunchy with plenty of almonds. Actual craftsmanship for under $20.

But wait! There’s more!!

You can be the first kid on your block to score the Panettone Bargain of the 2021 Christmas Season!!!

The secret is waiting within the updated Deep Dive story, Panettone! Pannetone! Pannettone!
 
 

Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival – 2021

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A visit to any Chinatown bakery this time of year will reveal a spectacular assemblage of mooncakes (月餅, yue bing) in a seemingly infinite variety of shapes, sizes, ornamentation, and fillings, all begging to be enjoyed in observance of the Mid-Autumn Festival, celebrated this year on September 21. Here are two pandan mooncakes, one with preserved egg yolk and a mini version without, from Chinatown’s Fay Da Bakery.

Since 2021 is the Year of the Ox, known for his patience and resolution, I was determined to purchase (and eat my way through – no matter how long it might take me 😉) an assortment of these delicacies in order to compare them and ultimately share them, virtually, with you. For a deep dive into the holiday and these delicious treats, please check out my Chinese Mooncakes Demystified page detailing their similarities and differences in an attempt to shed some light (moonlight, of course) on their intricacies.

中秋节快乐!
 
 
Note: Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, some businesses may be closed – temporarily, we hope – and prices may vary. The Mid-Autumn Festival, however, will be with us forever – as long as there are autumns to celebrate!
 
 

It Knows It When It Sees It

A long time ago, in a century far, far away (or so it seems), there was an enduring earworm of a hit song entitled “Shrimp Boats Is A-Comin'” popularized in 1951 by singer Jo Stafford. (If you’re under 60 years of age, you can hear it here.) So being of a certain age and a lover of wordplay, the original title for Monday’s post about shrimp balls was, of course, “Shrimp Balls Is A-Comin’.”

Quite by coincidence, a couple of days before it went up, my webhost had dispatched a routine missive to their clients indicating that they had upgraded some underlying code and suggesting that we have a look at our sites to ensure that all was well. A healthy round of clicking revealed no anomalies, so I thought nothing of it.

Subsequently, I published the shrimp balls piece, apparently without incident, but although it looked just fine online, none of my subscribers had received the customary notification that a new post had dropped; everything else about it, text, photos, internal links and the like, worked as anticipated. I tried a repost. Nothing. I assumed that it might have something to do with the under-the-hood tinkering (perhaps involving the outgoing email system?) that had recently taken place, so armed with a steaming mug of coffee and prepared to spend the day staring at my computer screen while listening to music on hold, I called my webhost.

I’ll spare you the details because I’m certain that you’ve all been victims of Customer Support Abuse: scripted questions like, “Are you sure your computer is plugged in?” “Is the caps lock key engaged?” “Have you tried wiping it down with a soft cloth?” and finally, “All right then, I’ll escalate you to Technical Support…” [of course, I had already pressed 3 when I called initially] “…and when [WHEN?] we get disconnected, call us back. Please hold.” 🎶🎶🎶….

Mercifully, I was connected to someone who knew the difference between a plug and a jack, and we unearthed the answer: their mail server’s oblivious algorithm had dutifully flagged the title of the post as porn and refused to distribute the message! So to verify, while Tech Support was standing by, I hastily substituted the rather insipid but assuredly safe title “Another Chinese Snack”, reposted it, and Bob’s your uncle, the announcements were dispatched.

Clearly, algorithms are not programmed to include a sense of humor.
 
 
What follows is the post “Shrimp Balls Is A-Comin'” as it originally appeared; only the name has been changed to – ostensibly – protect the innocent.

Although in retrospect, I think the backstory is more likely to grab you. 😉


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The Japanese inscription エビのボール reads ebi no bōru, shrimp balls, although it’s a Chinese product; the package shows a serving suggestion so don’t expect to find the sesame/cumin seeds or sprinkles of seasoning depicted in the photo. They bear some resemblance to the fish balls I wrote about in my post Goodness, Gracious, Great Balls of…Fish? (a particularly popular post among spammers, BTW – IDKW 😉) but rather than being something fished out of the freezer case destined for a soup pot or the like, these are a packaged item destined for snackin’ right out of the bag.


Individually wrapped as so many of these snacks are.


The inner workings. They’re moist, about 1½ inches in diameter, and actually pretty tasty; seems like there’s something more shrimp-related in there beyond what I’m guessing is mostly surimi masquerading as a higher form of seafood – plus the tiniest bit of spice. They have enough flavor on their own that I wouldn’t try to repurpose them into some loftier culinary creation; they might be more at home toothpicked with others of their ilk on a party platter.

 
 

July is National Ice Cream Month! Celebrate Globally!

The story began here:

Every August, as a routinely flushed, overheated child, I would join in chorus with my perspiring cohorts, boisterously importuning, “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream!” Little did I realize that rather than conjuring dessert, I was conjugating it and probably laying the groundwork for a lifetime of fascination with foreign languages and world food.

We lived in close proximity to one of the best dairies in town; it was known for its wide assortment of locally produced natural flavors, certainly sufficient in number and variety to satisfy any palate. Perhaps my obsession with offbeat ice cream flavors is rooted in my frustration with my father’s return home from work, invariably bearing the same kind of ice cream as the last time, Neapolitan. Neapolitan, again. My pleas to try a different flavor – just once? please? – consistently fell on deaf ears. “Neapolitan is chocolate, strawberry and vanilla. That’s three flavors right there. If you don’t want it, don’t eat it.” Some kids’ idea of rebellion involved smoking behind the garage; mine was to tuck into a bowl of Rum Raisin….

There’s lots more to the story, of course. Click here to get the full scoop! 🍨
 
 

It’s Durian Day! (Or Not…)

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Durian happens to be one of my favorite fruits, and while June 26 isn’t officially Durian Day, I agree with Fly FM, an English-language radio station based in Malaysia, that it should be.

You’ve probably heard the oft-quoted aphorism about it, “Tastes like heaven, smells like hell” but if you’ve never sampled durian, you might discover that you actually like it; a number of folks I’ve introduced it to on ethnojunkets have experienced that epiphany. There are gateway durian goodies too, like sweet durian pizza (see below), durian ice cream, candies, and freeze dried snacks and they’re all acceptable entry points as far as I’m concerned.

Here’s a post from the past, Durian’s Best Kept Secret, that recounts the story of a little known venue in Brooklyn where an assortment of durian cultivars can be purchased and enjoyed – and I did both, of course.


And a while back, it was my pleasure and privilege to write this piece, Durian Pizza in Flushing, for Edible Queens Magazine.

Happy Durian Day! 🤞
 
 

A Passover Dare

(Originally posted on April 20, 2019, in better times.)

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Previously on ethnojunkie.com, I did a springtime post that included a story about someone who dared me to come up with an ethnic fusion Passover menu. I wrote:

Well, far be it from me to dodge a culinary challenge! So although obviously inauthentic, but certainly fun and yummy, here’s to a Sazón Pesach!

Picante Gefilte Pescado
Masa Ball Posole
Brisket Mole
Poblano Potato Kugel
Maple Chipotle Carrot Tzimmes
Guacamole spiked with Horseradish
Charoset with Pepitas and Tamarindo

And, of course, the ever popular Manischewitz Sangria!

It was all in good fun, of course, but it got me thinking about actually creating a Jewish-Mexican fusion recipe. It isn’t strictly Kosher for Passover, but I thought the concept was worth a try. So here is my latest crack at cross cultural cooking: Masa Brei!

Now you might know that Matzo Brei (literally “fried matzo”) is a truly tasty dish consisting of matzos broken into pieces that are soaked briefly in warm milk (some folks use water), drained, soaked in beaten eggs until soft, then fried in copious quantities of butter. Typically served with sour cream and applesauce, it’s heimische cooking, Jewish soul food, at its finest and it’s easy to do.

So I thought it might be worth a try to swap out the matzos for tostadas, the milk for horchata, the sour cream for crema, and the applesauce for homemade pineapple-jalapeño salsa. A sprinkle of tajín, a scatter of chopped cilantro – and it actually worked!

Happy Passover!
!חג פסח שמח
 
 

Leftover Gravy, Swiss Steak, and a Flashback

👨‍🍳 Cooking in the Time of COVID 👨‍🍳

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This is not a TV Dinner. Nor does it play one on TV; that would be too meta. (Ceci n’est pas une pipe, either.) Rather, it is a refrigerator magnet measuring 4" x 3" that I bought because it struck a responsive chord in my retro heart, a dissonant chord that reminded me of my culinarily deprived childhood during which my mother’s oblivious ineptness in the kitchen relegated us to a daily sentence of Swanson’s TV Dinners and Morton’s Chicken Pot Pies. (Curious? Read “How I Got Into Cooking” if you dare.)


In any event, this all started because I had been staring at my refrigerator pondering how I should repurpose the gravy from the pernil I had recently made (see post) and since that magnet was in my direct line of sight, an itching, quirky thought of reproducing the nostalgic Swiss Steak dinner rushed into my head. So I set out to replicate the dish in all of its 60s splendor, but in a rendition, courtesy of the aforementioned gravy, that would actually taste better than either the refrigerator magnet or its original subject.

Good thing I couldn’t remember what that thing in the middle was supposed to be or I might have taken a crack at that too. It’s possible that the good folks at Swanson never really identified it as anything beyond a “yummy dessert treat topped with a sweet red maraschino cherry!” or words to that effect. My taste memories of it draw a blank. Can’t imagine why.

Happily, and ghoulish flashbacks notwithstanding, the end result, appropriately presented here, was infinitely better than the ur-dinner.

But I still couldn’t resist throwing the canonical frozen pat of butter onto the mashed potatoes.
 
 
Stay safe, be well, and eat whatever it takes. ❤️
 
 

Girasol Bakery

My cat’s favorite catnip mouse had been missing for over a week. Every night, Mercury (he answers to Murky) would select that one particular, very special mouse from his box of about twenty, deposit it just outside the bedroom door, and meow vociferously until I, in grateful appreciation of his gift, emerge to retrieve it and offer a kitty treat in exchange. Every Single Night. But now, that mouse was gone, and clearly, since Murky had been failing to keep his nightly appointment, there would be no substitute. I missed his bedtime visit just as he missed that mouse.

Well obviously, given the circumstances, there was only one thing I could do: scope out every pet shop within a four mile radius of my apartment until I could track down an identical replacement. By the end of that afternoon I was ready to give up. Only one store remained on my list but miraculously, there was one such mouse in stock – the last one they had.

Triumphant, I started for home, but a few storefronts away I spotted Girasol Bakery at 690 5th Avenue in Brooklyn’s South Slope neighborhood. Being on a diet (thanks a lot, COVID), I’ve been scrupulously avoiding bakeries, “but it can’t hurt to just peek in,” I thought. Famous Last Thoughts.

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I’m a fan of bread pudding even though some versions can be a little dry, practically begging to be paired in a duet with drizzle of sauce. But this one was so moist, so luscious looking, it was undoubtedly a soloist. I caved.


Its display case neighbor was the archetypal Mexican dessert, chocoflan, aka “impossible cake”. A dark layer of chocolate cake oozing richness topped with a golden layer of creamy flan (they separate during the baking process, hence the nickname) proved irresistible, so okay, one piece, please. They’ll keep; I don’t have to eat them both at once.


Another case nearby flaunted tempting tres leches cake, that transcendent dessert drenched in three kinds of milk (sweetened condensed, evaporated, and heavy cream). Makes you wonder if you should consume it with a fork or a spoon. Or perhaps a straw. The trio should last for three days at least, longer if I divvy them up.

I arrived home with my treats and Murky’s new BFF. As I was enjoying a prudently tiny taste of each of the three goodies, he brought me his new mouse and laid it at my feet – as if to say, “Thank you.” Awww, Murky!

But then, one prudently tiny taste later, he brought me his old mouse and laid it at my feet – as if to say, “Psych!”

Damn. The ignominy of being outfoxed by a cat. Well obviously, given the circumstances, there was only one thing I could do: polish off the rest of the people treats in stark exasperation then and there. Diet? What diet?
 
 
Stay safe, be well, and eat whatever it takes. ❤️
 
 

Panettone! Pannetone! Pannettone!

Originally published in 2017, this post has been updated for 2019 and 2020.

One of these things is not like the others, or so the song goes. In this case, the outlier is the first Panettone, the only orthographically correct version of the subject of this post. To tell the truth, the two imposters share the spotlight only by way of capitulation to less-than-forgiving search engines (and not as a sly reference to the 90s R&B/soul group) because it is my mission to ensure that everyone falls in love with this gift to the culinary arts as deeply, passionately, and yes, obsessively as I have.

You’re all familiar with panettone, right? That Italian (Milanese, specifically) sweet, fruity, fluffy cake that’s usually consumed for the holidays (Christmas, specifically) but can be enjoyed year-round by ardent aficionados (me, specifically).

Fanciful spellings aside, you’ll find panettone in most markets around Christmastime and in Italian specialty shops year round (fortunately for us). A little digging uproots an extended family tree including pandoro, pandolce, panforte, panpepato, and pangiallo. The last four differ radically from the subject of our discourse so for the sake of completeness, let’s dispatch them straightaway:

• Pandolce, “sweet bread”, hails from Genoa, and unlike gossamer panettone is dense and somewhat crumbly like a cookie.
• Panforte, “strong bread”, is neither breadlike nor cakey; it’s more of a dense, chewy fruit paste, spicy and sweet. I sometimes serve it as an accompaniment to a cheese plate.
• Panpepato, “peppered bread”, is a subset of panforte, gingery, nutty, and covered with chocolate.
• Pangiallo, “yellow bread”, is Rome’s challenger. Sometimes saffron infused, often laden with chocolate and always dense with dried fruit, I know this one only by repute.

Now that we’ve dispelled any confusion regarding the distant cugini, we can focus on the object of our affection. Our goal is to determine which style and brand you like the best. We’ll start with style; the two you’re most likely to encounter are panettone, the pride of Milan and pandoro, Verona’s answer to it.

The story of how panettone gets its name is the stuff of which legend is made but I frankly don’t find any of the fables particularly convincing. One tale recounts that in 15th century Milan, a delicious bread was crafted that incorporated yeast, an ingredient so dear in that era that it earned the moniker “pane di tono”, literally “luxury cake” – feasible, except that every Italian dictionary I own or found on the interwebs fails to suggest “luxury” as a definition for tono. But I suppose Italian was different back then.

Another more linguistically stringent contender avers that since pane means bread or cake, adding the diminutive suffix -etto turns it into a small loaf cake and then appending the augmentative suffix -one renders it large, thus describing a “large small loaf cake”. Really? But I suppose whimsy was different back then.

Yet another narrative tells of the Duke of Milan’s cook who having prepared an otherwise sumptuous repast disastrously burned the dessert. Fortunately, the young kitchen apprentice, Toni, proposed that they serve the sweet cake he had made for his own breakfast. Delighted, the Duke requested the name of the delicious cake, the cook replied “il pane di Toni”, and the rest is history. I don’t know about you, but if I had concocted so splendid a treat for my breakfast, none would have been kicking around the kitchen come dinnertime – not to mention the fact that the preparation of panettone is a time consuming, arduous process and not something one hastily throws together for breakfast like a bagel with a schmear. But I suppose panettone was different back then.

Less about folklore and more about traditional religious ritual, the people of Milan save a piece of their Christmas panettone, have it blessed and eat it on February 3, the morning after Candlemas which for them heralds the end of the Christmas season. Known as the Feast of San Biagio, it celebrates the saga of St. Blaise as he saved the life of a boy who was choking on a fish bone by feeding him bread in order to dislodge the bone. Eating panettone for breakfast that day therefore pays homage to the “protector of the throat”, patron saint of throats and noses, and ensures that his followers will be safeguarded against colds and sore throats in the upcoming year. Who needs a flu shot when you have such a delicious excuse to enjoy more panettone?

Enough history; what’s it like? The shape is that of a domed, squat cylinder, about 5–6 inches high, 8–9 inches in diameter, typically baked in a pan lined with a ring of corrugated, often brown, paper. Based on a sweet risen dough, it’s airy, eggy, buttery, moist and so light that it practically floats; it pulls apart almost like cotton candy although you’ll want to slice it with a serrated knife. The classic version is stippled with candied citron and raisins and often sports an almond or hazelnut glaze.

Many other less traditional but still delicious flavors abound including pistachio, sour cherry, mixed berry, pineapple, peach, apricot, pear, bits of chocolate, moscato wine, limoncello, zuppa inglese, tiramisu, crema pasticcera (custard), and combinations thereof including varieties without candied fruit.

I’ve seen numerous recipes with recommendations for what to do with leftover panettone. “Leftover panettone” is an oxymoron and bears no further discussion here. I will admit, albeit grudgingly, that you can freeze it, but only if it’s wrapped extremely well.

Like so many cultural dichotomies such as Coke vs Pepsi, the Beatles vs the Stones, the Addams Family vs the Munsters, and Mary Ann vs Ginger, there are those who champion Verona’s pandoro (“golden bread”) over Milan’s panettone. The texture of pandoro is a little denser than that of panettone but not as dense as pound cake. Also sweet and buttery, touched with vanilla, they are customarily devoid of candied fruit or decadent chocolate and creamy fillings; on occasion, you might detect a delicate whisper of other flavorings like anisette or lemon zest. Picture a two-dimensional eight-pointed star, extruded upwards conically into three dimensions and taller than a panettone; it is often presented with nothing more than a sprinkling of powdered sugar to resemble the snow-covered Alps in winter. If you insist on inventing more complex dishes using “leftover” Italian Christmas breads and cakes, the more modest pandoro lends itself better than panettone to the addition of crème fraîche, mascarpone, whipped cream, custard and fresh fruits, or the likes of Nutella – since panettone is, after all, perfection straight out of its wrapper (in my not so humble opinion, of course 😉).

Now on to brand. Like everything in the food world, it should always be about what you like personally and individually, not about what somebody tells you you should like. Each brand has its own flavor and texture, let alone unique varieties. Over the years I’ve eaten my way through mountains (think Alps) of these treats and I’ve found what I consider to be the very best: Albertengo brand Panettone Tradizionale Glassato (traditional glazed) – but they’re almost impossible to find in New York. So I wrote to the nice folks at Albertengo in Italy in buoyant English and foundering Italian and they turned me on to the one place in the city that stocks the stuff: Nicola’s Specialty Foods. The photo at the top of the page shows this morning’s breakfast: Albertengo Tradizionale Glassato – la colazione dei campioni!

I consider myself fortunate to be a regular attendee at the Specialty Food Association’s Fancy Food Show every year here in New York City. Featuring thousands of new products from the US and internationally, they’re considered North America’s hottest place to catch the latest in specialty foods. Needless to report, at the 2017 show, I spent a good deal of discerning time in Italy’s pavilion checking out the panettoni both for flavor and to determine where retail outlets will be. After all, when I find a winner, you need to know how to score some!

 
Update:

Nicola’s has gone the way of all estimable suppliers of specialty wares, so to feed my habit, I needed to find a new dealer (as it were). Having exhausted the search at local (and not-so-local) brick and mortar purveyors of panettoni for my favorite brand and style, I had no choice but to turn to the interwebs. Sure, there were plenty of panettoni to be found, but sadly, not the one I was jonesing for. A few sites did list it accompanied by the legend, “Currently unavailable. We don’t know when or if this item will be back in stock.” Not very helpful. Crestfallen, I did sample other contenders, but none measured up to my vision of perfection.

Not long after, a pair of social media friends, hardcore foodies who appreciate the good stuff, contacted me. They had been visiting Montreal and returned bearing an enormous 22-pound panettone made by Loison Pasticceri, a company headquartered in Italy, family-owned for three generations and passionate specialists in panettoni, pandori, and the like. Aware of my addiction, they invited me to their home to partake of this mammoth masterpiece.


Not to put too fine a point on “mammoth”, but that’s a shiny quarter down there.

One taste and I was hooked. That day, two delightful things happened: I finally met this charming couple IRL and I found new love in Loison. Fortunately, Loison’s products were easy to purchase on the web. Too easy, perhaps. Although I prudently ordered them sequentially, all told, I probably bought more than I should have.

The first shipment was the Classico, tasting very much like the Albertengo version in the photo at the top of this post. Sweet and fluffy with an unadorned crown, laden with raisins and candied orange and citron, it was terrific.


The second was Mandorlato (almond), similar to the Classico but with the addition of an almond glaze topping, generously bedecked with whole almonds and sweet, crunchy pearl sugar bits not unlike the Easter Colomba di Pasqua I posted about here.


The third to arrive at my table was the Regal Cioccolato, shot through with bits of chocolate and channels of chocolate cream. Superbly chocolatey and happily in perfect balance with the cake.


The fourth was NeroSale: Cioccolato e Caramello Salato (chocolate and salted caramel). Now, I tend to be a purist about certain foods, so I reckoned that this wasn’t the one that would take the cake, but it may have been the best of the four (all of which were excellent) – and certainly the most outrageous.

The fifth is what I’m going to plead if you ask me if I really bought four panettoni this year.

It’s 2020. What can I say?