Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Recipes (3): Panettone

There is a beautiful Italian word, spoetizzarsi, it literally means feeling the poetry drain out of you. I shall illustrate the usage with a little story that I am fond of telling. I had been in New Zealand for about six months, home sickness at an all time high, when I came out of the City Limits Café in Wellington and for a split second I had an intense, endorphin-laden sensation of being back in Milan. It was the smell of home. I turned around just in time to see the delivery truck that had just left the parking space next to me disappear into traffic.

That was my Proustian moment, then. Exhaust fumes. I was utterly spoetizzato.

By choice, I would have selected other moments, far more poetic aromas. How about the day in October when they would start the yearly production of panettone at the Alemagna bakery near my place? Not only it was a fabulous smell, a portent of butter and eggs and candied fruit, but also a prelude to Christmas, and the reaction among the kids in the area was practically Pavlovian. At least that's how I choose to remember it - the bakery closed down a long time ago - but I recall what the smell itself felt like, effortlessly, and needless to say it wasn't the same whiff you got by opening a box of the stuff so many weeks later. It was the smell of a moment in time, the cranking up of the season.

The exact origin of panettone is uncertain, but is generally made to coincide with the days of Ludovico il Moro, the Duke who hired Leonardo da Vinci as the city's main artist and engineer. Of all the many variations on the story of this happy invention, however, none that I know attributes the dome shaped bread-come-cake to Leonardo. It seems that the name is a conflation of pan del Toni, Toni's bread, and this Toni naturally we assume was a baker. That's about all we know. But we have some idea of the ritual that panettone fitted into, and it's a suggestive one. On Christmas day, the Milanese families used to congregate - as they had for centuries - in front of a block of oak lit in the hearth over a bed of juniper. The father would pour a glass of wine, drink the first sip and pass it around for everyone to have a taste, then he would throw a coin into the fire and dispense one coin each to the others. At the end of the ritual he would be handed three panettoni (which in earlier times had been wheat loaves), and he would cut a piece off one of them, which the family would have to keep intact until the following Christmas. This special piece was attributed thaumaturgical powers, and a great misfortune awaited those who should fail to preserve it.

So it goes like this: a non-liturgical ritual, that quite possibly predates Christianity and hasn't survived until the present day, has left us a cake, or rather, a recipe, a series of gestures and procedures for producing a smell capable, on a small industrial scale, to spread through a neighbourhood and make young minds think of Christmas.

It is just as well we cannot digitise smells, some might opine; but they, too, are the stuff of memory. Besides Proust, it was Patrick Süskind I think who most famously attempted to restore this most neglected of senses - in literature, I mean - setting his Perfume in the smelliest place in all of 18th-century France, and trying oh so very hard to make his words, fit for your eyes and ears, tickle the parts of the brain that would, if they could, speak in smellese. But at the end of the day his are no more than olfactory descriptions, and remain anchored to the page. I shall venture to suggest in fact - although naturally you should feel free to take issue - that when lost in a book you and I often find it quite easy to see with our mind's eye. But smelling with one's mind's nose is quite another matter.

I am not a good cook, and I know I shall never do justice to those of my mother's and my nonna's favourite dishes that I have doggedly tried to reproduce over the years. The taste will always leave something, possibly a lot, to be desired. But there comes a time in most preparations when I get something right - the smell. And I have every faith that even if I botched one or more aspects of the following recipe, if the panettone fails to rise or is misshapen, if no matter what I do it always burns on the outside and remains raw on the inside, hell, even if I should set fire to the kitchen, there will nonetheless be a moment when I shall, perhaps briefly, get hold of that smell, and be once again a boy walking past the Alemagna bakery.

Panettone alla milanese

Makes three panettoni of one kilogram each. (We're working on a quasi-industrial scale, remember).

1,350 g white flour
400 g butter
300 g castor sugar
250 g fresh baker's yeast
200 g currants
50 g candied citron
50 g candied orange
15 eggs

Tip on a wooden board 150 g of flour and create a fountain shape. Crumble the yeast in the fountain with a little warm water. Mix the flour in slowly to produce a soft dough and knead it well. Shape it into a ball and leave in a warm and dry place, inside a bowl covered with a cloth, for at least three hours, until double in size. Tip on the board another 130 g of flour, and create another fountain. Put the risen dough from the previous preparation in the middle and mix it with the rest of the flower, adding a little warm water in the process. Again you're going to make a ball, and place it in a covered bowl in the same dry and warm place, this time for two hours, again it ought to double in size. Dice the candied citron and the candied orange. Wash and soften in lukewarm water the currants (for no longer than fifteen minutes), then drain and dry them thoroughly.

Tip on the board 1 kilogram of flower, mix in two teaspoons of salt and create the usual fountain shape.

Melt on a very low heat 300 g of butter.

Melt the sugar in one inch of warm water. Whip in 12 yolks and three whole eggs. Put the container in bain-marie until lukewarm.

Take the twice-risen dough out of the bowl, place it in the middle of the fountain and, adding the warm melted butter first, then the egg and sugar syrup (also warm), mix in gradually all of the flour. Knead the dough vigorously for about 20 minutes, until it assumes the consistency of bread dough. Add the currants and candied fruit. Divide the dough according to how many panettoni you want to produce (which will depend in turn on the size of the oven), roll them, wrap them with cardboard bands and leave them to rise for another six hours in a warm place. Place them, without removing the cardboard, in a heated oven (200-220°C). Cut in pieces the remaining butter and put it quickly on the surface after five minutes of cooking. Put back in the oven for the remainder of the cooking time, which ranges from 45 to 90 minutes depending on the size of the panettone.

Translated and adapted from Anita Moretti, Le ricette della mia cucina milanese e lombarda (Milano: Edizioni del Riccio, 1980), pp. 148-149.

Francesca Belotti and Gian Luca Margheriti. 'Che storia il panettone'. Il Corriere della Sera.
Anita Moretti. Le ricette della mia cucina milanese e lombarda. Milano: Edizioni del Riccio, 1980.


Paul said...

What wonderful stuff is panettone. I want some, now.

Smells are so effective in evoking memory.

Taramoc said...

I seem to remember reading that smells are more powerful than any other sense in evoking memories. It has to do to the fact that the olfactory center in the brain is closer to the memory center than any other sense.

I can't recall where I read it, and I may be completely wrong, so don't quote me on this.

Grunt said...

I'm sorry, perhaps it's the dried/candied friut component but I detest Panettone. I feel like I need to send you some Christmas pound cake now, just so you know what good baked goods taste like during the holidays.

Taramoc said...

Grunt, have you tried the REALLY good ones, like the one you do it yourself or made by a local bakery?

Just asking because I'm the same, can't stand the industrial mass produced one because of the candied fruit, but if done like in the old days, it's delicious, candied fruit included.

Giovanni said...

I like candied fruit fine, and I would pay good money for a quality, mass-produced panettone right now. That said, my father use to bring home a couple from the Marchesi bakery, and they were unqestionably something else. I'm never home in the right season these days.

Taramoc, your memory wasn't deceiving you:

"The primary olfactory cortex, in which higher-level processing of olfactory information takes place, forms a direct link with the amygdala and the hippocampus. Only two synapses separate the olfactory nerve from the amygdala, which is involved in experiencing emotion and also in emotional memory (Herz & Engen, 1996). In addition, only three synapses separate the olfactory nerve from the hippocampus, which is implicated in memory, especially working memory and short-term memory. Olfaction is the sensory modality that is physically closest to the limbic system, of which the hippocampus and amygdala are a part, and which is responsible for emotions and memory. Indeed this may be why odor-evoked memories are unusually emotionally potent."

(Here's the source)

merc said...

"Indeed this may be why odor-evoked memories are unusually emotionally potent."
They are, consider your lover's perfume...

harvestbird said...

How to Get the Most Out of Your War Rations
and Every Girl's Cookery Book

spell minor miracles made from dripping
or cabbage boiled for twenty minutes

but also stand a test of time:
the oven timer, the tasting test

(from Grandma I learned a lesson in love:
for whom you cherish, you bake a slice).

Giovanni said...

My mother keeps saying that, "food is love", and was very saddened to discover during our last trip that she's not up to entertaining guests anymore (although I think she has a few baked slices in her yet). It's also one of my most vivid memories of nonna: her standing up to clear the dining table after one of the customary and memorable lunches she cooked on Saint Michael's day, and saying "I thing I'm beginning to get old". She had just turned eighty.

But back to Merc's point, and 'odor-evoked' memories. I withdrew at the last minute what was originally going to be the point of the post, namely that we cannot recall smells as such, we have no language in mentalese to express them, and this shortcoming, this inability to describe and perform, makes us to underestimate their experiential importance. I can picture a familiar face, draw it with passing likeness even; recall the sound of a familiar voice, or a tune, and mimic it or whistle it. But can I do the same with smell or taste? I would have thought not, but a conversation with Justine earlier this week made me a little doubtful. I'm thinking carpenter's glues from the workshop of Signor Fabbris, and the smell of roses on a wet summer morn. I wonder if I can actually smell those in my head. Any thoughts?

merc said...

Smell is not visual memory and from uni memory there are many different kinds of memory and not what we usually consider memory to be popularly.

I pressed the blade
to my wrist and
the smell was ozone and fear.

Taramoc said...

I would agree with Justine, it is possible I think to recall smells.

I can remember (whatever that means) a handful right now. It seems to me that they have to be smells that I have experienced repeatedly, on a daily bases.

For example, I used to leave over a patisserie and the heavenly smell of their products always permeated the stairs of my building. I can clearly evoke (this maybe a better term) it in my head now. Also the old building smell of a classmate of mine's house, where I used to go almost daily to do homework.

I can't really think of a smell that I experienced once, for how strongly that was, and evoke it.

It would be interesting to know how the relationship between memory and smells is for blind people. I have the impression that it would be very similar to our memory and images. It may even be stronger, given the mentioned proximity of the olfactory center and the memory functions in our brains.

Giovanni said...

You can smell with your's mind nose, then, you reckon? I'm not quite convinced, although of course I bow to other people's self-assessment - it may simply be a personal limitation of mine.

Merc makes me wonder if the limit I'm perceiving is a limit of description. To say that the smell was ozone and fear is to metaphorise (it's called imagery even when it refers to smells, doesn't it?) in the same way a writer would when describing a sunset. But in the case of visual and aural memories we can do other things as well: hum a tune or impersonate a voice or draw/paint a picture. They're all forms of representation, just like a prose description, but different in quality I would suggest. More direct. But there is no similarly accesible way to make a smell (hold the crass jokes at the back there) - although it's precisely what the protagonist of Suskind's novel does.

merc said...

Sunset = object
Fear = subject

Taramoc said...

The lack of ways to reproduce a smell may just be a byproduct of our society, and our reality at large.

If we were a specie more olfactory oriented, maybe we would carry around little vials, instead of a pen and a notebook. We could use the vials to create smells to provoke emotions in our friends (keep holding those jokes back), just like we do when we tell a joke or draw a funny sketch.

merc said...

Interesting, perhaps we are little vials...
Fear + Smell = Memory?

Giovanni said...

This guy jokes in passing that one could use smell triggers to help for exam revision. Would you be cheating if you brought some odour samples into an exam room?

Interesting, perhaps we are little vials...

That thought triggers some gratuitous Milton (from Aeropagitica):

"[b]ooks are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them."

merc said...

Let not England forget her precedence of teaching nations how to live.
John Milton

Giovanni said...

Whoah, okay, let's not exagerate with the gratuitousness. What do you think this is, Bartlett's dictionary of random quotations?

Here's the (necessary) context of the Milton quote - still cringingly chauvinistic, but it'd be like asking a national anthem to be anything but.

merc said...

I make it an absolute personal rule never to quote on the interwebby without holding the tract in my physical hand...
I lie, of course, poets and philosophers, unsteady friends. One will deny the other should the bill be discussed...