Holiday food items are appearing in our local stores as expected this time of year, and, if you’re like us, they conjure up all kinds of childhood associations. For me, I vividly recall sitting around the dinner table watching my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles drinking coffee and eating panetonne, the iconic Italian Christmas bread.
If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a bit like an Italian version of the American fruitcake. Both are breads filled with liquor soaked fruits and seemingly have a shelf life of forever.
But that would be your grandparent’s panetonne. Naturally, there is a huge selection of this Italian festive food, and one of our local gourmet markets, Monsieur Marcel, has more than 300 kinds of panettone and pandoro, the traditional star-shaped gold Christmas cake, that are way better than my childhood recollection.
“We have the largest collection of Italian panettone and pandoros in Los Angeles,” explained Katy Strouk, who owns Monsieur Marcel with her husband Stephan. She says she searches the finest pasticcerias in Italy, represented at the New York Fancy Food show, where she finds what she considers the finest, artisanal, hand-crafted Italian holiday cakes available in the world. She even takes her own containers to the show, so she can bring back items directly and doesn’t have to rely only on distributors, and so she can offer small brands before they get discovered. Strouk said she tastes almost everything, and in late summer she puts together a spreadsheet to make sure she has a diverse inventory – fruits, nuts, chocolate, etc. – so there’s something for everyone’s tastes.
Strouk’s encyclopedic knowledge of gourmet foods is impressive, but not intimidating. Choosing a delicacy to take home can be overwhelming, but her advice is simple. “What do you like? Chocolate, pears, cherries, pistachios? Then go with that.” There’s even one cake made with aged Balsamic vinegar.
Panettone is made with simple ingredients: flour, butter, eggs (which provide the golden flavor), and sugar. Candied or dried fruit soaked in liquor is added for various flavorings. But the cakes take more than 48 hours to make, with repeated proofing that matures the flavors and creates the fluffy texture. The yeast acts as a preservative and the bread can stay fresh for up to 30 days. Once baked, the breads are hung upside for 12 hours, to give them the signature domed shape and keep them from collapsing as they cool. The upside-down hanging also helps the breads retains a light texture, which makes them perfect for French toast on Christmas morning.
It’s the Italian tradition to bring these beautifully wrapped cakes for the holidays, and if you want the real deal, the authentic, the finest, the best European ingredients- a true artisan Italian panettone or pandoro – check out Monsieur Marcel’s collection. They have multiple brands in varying sizes and price categories, including minis; 3-packs; 500g; 750g and 1000g.
But if Italian panettone is not your holiday tradition, don’t worry. Strouk has holiday offerings from all over, including English Figgy Christmas Pudding, Mincemeat, and Brandy Butter Hard Sauce. There are even Orthodox Chews Salt Water Taffy.
It’s going to be a delicious holiday season!