Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Panettone - The Sweet History of The Christmas Bread

Panettone Photo by Leticia Alaniz © 2015
Panettone is the decadent bread of luxury that makes it’s elegant appearance every year for the Christmas season up until Epiphany or Three Kings' day on January sixth.  

For centuries it has made its way into folktales and even Italian oil paintings.  One particular story was brilliantly captured based on an ancient folktale by children’s author Tomie dePaola in Tony’s Bread: An Italian Folktale.  Tony, a baker in a small village has a beautiful daughter of marriageable age named Serafina, but he thinks no man is worthy enough for her.  But one day, Angelo, a wealthy nobleman who came into town in search of a bride, falls in love with her at first sight and wants to marry his daughter.  Tony, already decided that no man in the region was handsome or strong enough for his daughter, decides to give the suitor a chance by asking him to take over some of the baking in his bakery.  Tony wants to become the most famous baker in all of Milano and Angelo is determined to win Tony’s approval and Serafina’s hand in marriage.  He works hard every day to come up with the perfect recipe and kneads the most fluffiest dough ever known.  Once the dough had fermented and risen enough, he kneaded it even more and mixed in pieces of luxurious dry fruit.  He placed it in a mold and gave it the shape of a cupola so that it resembled the high cupolas of Milan’s cathedrals.  Angelo calls the bread Pan di Tonio, or panettone in honor of Tony and the bread became famous all over Italy.  As the folktale tells us, Angelo eventually won Angela’s hand in marriage and it is commonly said that the flavored bread was born from love.

The true origin of the panettone has its roots in the Middle Ages.  In those times there was a widespread custom of celebrating Christmas with a bread that was more special and richer than the daily bread, usually sweetened with honey.  There is an ancient manuscript from the fifteenth century written by Giorgio Valagussa, preceptor of the Sforza House that certifies the late century ritual of celebrating with fragrant, sweet bread and the burning of a heavy log called a trunk or yule log.  The burning of the trunk signified light in the dark winter months when the winter solstice had already begun by December 22nd.  On the night of Christmas eve, December 24th, the log was placed in the fireplace and at the same time, loaves of the special bread were placed on the table for the Christmas eve dinner.  Wheat, candied dried fruits and eggs were of great value, and very expensive especially in the winter season.  The head of the family served a slice to each of the guests, reserving one for the following year or Epiphany as a sign of continuity.  The ancient pagan tradition of celebrating the Roman holidays or winter solstice blended with Christian traditions and the custom of celebrating with fragrant, sweet bread spread far and wide.

The tradition of baking bread in Milan gained even more fame with the creation of the panettone.  There are many versions and recipes from many bakeries all whom guard their secret recipes with the family.  Even today, right up until Christmas, Milan bakers are busy fermenting the bread from a sourdough starter for several days in preparation for the Christmas feasts.  Some bakers rise the dough at least three times, which yields a very fluffy and airy bread.  Panettone was an expensive bread and a luxury not afforded often.  Therefore it was reserved for Christmas.  The first recorded association of panettone with Christmas can be found in the writings of 18th century illuminist Pietro Verri. He refers to it as "Pane di Tono”.  The word "panettone" derives from the Italian word "panetto", a small loaf cake. The augmentative Italian suffix "-one" changes the meaning to "large cake".  

As Italians immigrated to other parts of the world, they brought the tradition of the panettone with them, especially to Latin America, where in Peru, Venezuela and Mexico, panettone is always on the Christmas table and sold in all the bakeries along with roscas or kings bread.  In many families, panettone is either purchased or home made and given as Christmas gifts in beautifully wrapped boxes.    

An authentic panettone takes several days to make.  The process is long as it requires a long curing process of the dough which is acidic like a sourdough.  It contains candied orange, citron, and lemon zest, as well as raisins, which are added dry and not soaked.  It is served in slices accompanied with sweet hot beverages, sweet wine, or a sweet liquor such as amaretto. 

By Leticia Alaniz

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon - Soft Boiled Eggs

Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon - Pilate Makes Perfect Soft Boiled Eggs
Photo by Leticia Alaniz @2015
Cold winter chilly nights are an invitation to take advantage of the seasonal effects of nature.  The woods are dark and deep, the days are shorter, the sun crawls streaking thru the long horizon, and contrast shadows bring in the violet blue nights.  For this winter, I decided to give myself the gift of sitting down in the evenings, uninterrupted, for some quiet long awaited time to re-read the richly textured novel, Song of Solomon, written by beloved American Nobel Laureate, Toni Morrison.  

The pages weave spiritual freedom from mental bondage thru the principal character, a twelve year old boy who goes by the nickname Milkman, whose real name is Macon Dead III.  He earned his nickname because his mother Ruth, breast fed him far too long and in a literal sense, he feeds off of what others produce long into his 30’s.  It is the narrative of an American black family spanning four generations.  The beautifully worded family album describes a picture of the circumstances of escaping death, seeking freedom from bondage, or pursuing a better life which oftentimes meant abandoning the family and leaving the raising of the children to the mothers exclusively.

In Song of Solomon, the characters tell their own stories in which Morrison intermixes the present, the past, and the future in a unique narrative structure.  The second chapter of the book is when Milkman is twelve years old.  Its 1943, and he meets seventeen-year-old Guitar, who introduces him for the first time to his aunt Pilate, whom had a fallout with her own brother, Milkman’s father.  They have not spoken to each other in many years.  Pilate makes wine and has a wine house that many people in that society consider of ill repute and questionable.  Prohibition of alchohol ended in 1933, but even if the ban had been lifted, in deep rural communities there were strict protestants and christian social progressives whom considered wine- making nothing more than the sinful, cheaply made, moonshine.  It is here that Pilate invites the boys inside her humble wine house and for the first time, unveils Milkman’s eyes to the mysteries and secrets of the family. 

Pilate offers the boys a soft boiled egg which carries a lot of symbolism as she tells them stories about growing up in Pennsylvania, and about her relationship with her brother, Macon, and how they both ran away after their father was murdered.  The boys are enchanted by her stories, but more so, Milkman who desperately wants to discover the truths that have been enshrouded in darkness and kept secret inside the musty, and fermenting fruit-smelling wine house.  She gives them a lesson on how to cook the perfect velvety eggs:

“You all want a soft boiled egg?”  she asked.
The boys looked at each other.  She’d changed rhythm on them.  They didn’t want an egg, but they did want to be with her, to go inside the wine house of this lady who had one earring, no navel, and looked like a tall black tree.
     “No thanks, but we’d like a drink of water.”  Guitar smiled back at her.
“Well.  Step right in.”  She opened the door and they followed her into a large sunny room that looked both barren and cluttered.  A moss green sack hung from the ceiling.  Candles were stuck in bottles everywhere, newspaper articles and magazine pictures were nailed to the walls.  But other than a rocking chair, two straight-backed chairs, a large table, a sink and a stove, there was no furniture.  Pervading everything was the odor of pine and fermenting fruit.  
     “You ought to try one.  I know how to do them just right.  I don’t like my whites to move, you know.  The yolk I want soft, but not runny.  Want it like wet velvet.  How come you don’t just try one?”
     She had dumped the peelings in a large crock, which like most everything in the house had been made for some other purpose.  Now she stood before the dry sink, pumping water into a blue and white wash basin which she used for a saucepan.
     “Now the water and the egg have to meet each other on a kind of equal standing.  One can’t get the upper hand over the other.  So the temperature has to be the same for both.  I knock the chill off the water first.  Just the chill.  I don’t let it get warm because the egg is room temperature, you see.  Now then, the real secret is right here in the boiling.  When the tiny bubbles come to the surface, when they as big as peas and just before they get big as marbles.  Well, right then you take the pot off the fire.  You don’t just put the fire out; you take the pot off.  Then you put a folded newspaper over the pot and do one small obligation.  Like answering the door or emptying the bucket and bringing it in off the front porch.  I generally go to the toilet.  Not for a long stay, mind you.  Just a short one.  If you do all that, you got yourself a perfect soft boiled egg.” - Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison

Pilate gives the eggs a lengthy treatment of importance and they’re the beginning of the portrayal of stories of real life, the stories that Pilate will slowly uncover for Milkman.  They’re the allusions of the traditional african past which play an integral part in the stories.  Throughout the ages, the egg has symbolized new beginnings and birth.  Eggs are associated with mythical and supernatural beliefs and in philosophical thought they signify resurrection.  

Ironically, Milkman’s last name is Dead, and he begins a quest for meaning in his formative, coming of age years thru Pilate, whom he considers his “living” relative.  To Milkman, his father was as stiff and stern just as his name says, Dead.  He lived in a home of disintegrating, rotting relationships, beginning with his own parents, Macon senior and his mother Ruth.  The estranged relationship between his father Macon and his sister Pilot.  The distant relationship with his own sister and later, the ill-fitted amorous relationship he had with his own cousin and daughter of Pilot, Hagar.  

When Milkman eats the soft boiled egg, it sets him on a journey where he ends up learning of the circumstances of his own birth, his own ancestors and where he came from.  Song of Solomon is full of allegories, myth and prophetic evaluations of the past.  All cultures have woven their legends of the mystery of creation and perhaps one of the most powerful mysteries is the egg.

American Novelist Toni Morrison
When Pilate cooks the eggs and reveals their soft velvety insides, only until then does the magical journey begin.  She gets right to the heart of the matter.  The egg image resurfaces several times throughout the novel and the heart is likened to an egg yolk.  Morrison writes with passion and voice, it is the song of songs, the very thing that unfolds the magic.  

Tony Morrison’s Song of Solomon was published in 1977.  It was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award and was cited by the Swedish Academy as the winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature.  It has been celebrated by the Radcliffe Publishing Course as 25th best English language novel of the 20th century.

Written by Leticia Alaniz © 2015