MIDDLESEX, VT. — Panettone presents a challenging yet gratifying product for bakers each December because of the nature of producing this celebrated Italian sweet bread. You have a small window to get it right, and often by the time you find the proper groove, your season is over. Making great panettone is like bundling spring training and the World Series into a single month.
For Jeremy Gulley, who’s in charge of pastry at Red Hen Baking in Middlesex, panettone is a labor love that begins every year just before Thanksgiving. When asked whether they’ve nearly perfected the process, he replies: “I would say it is ongoing. That’s the one thing I enjoy — always being on the edge of disaster.”
“It’s definitely incredibly challenging,” echoed Randy George, who founded Red Hen with his wife, Eliza, in 1999. “We’ve been making it about 15 years. It’s a fairly temperamental process in terms of dough development. You only get a few shots at it.”
Mr. Gulley offered words of wisdom from his experiences. On Monday morning, the process starts by refreshing their “chef” (100% hydration starter) and mixing the levain (61-67% hydration), followed by an 8- to 9-hour ferment. They mix the first dough (to “smooth incorporation”) around 10 p.m. and allow it to ferment overnight. The final dough is mixed Tuesday morning, then 3 to 4 hours to ferment followed by a long overnight final proof. The first dough includes butter and sugar. Egg yolks, honey and fruit soaker are mixed in the final dough.
The desired dough temperature is 72 degrees for the first dough, 78 degrees for the final.
“It seems sensitive to too warm of temperatures,” Mr. Gulley said. “One thing is the first dough build is pretty important. You don’t want to overmix. If you miss the temperature on the final dough, you don’t have a lot of room for adjustment.
“A lot of people mix it wetter than ours, much closer to ciabatta-like. If you are achieving a ciabatta-like panettone, (the final product) will have a frothy, open, light texture. Ours is light and tender, with not as open of structure.”
By necessity, Red Hen bakes panettone at 350 to 375 degrees in a deck oven (steam is important) — 18 to 20 minutes for small size (9.75 oz) and 25 to 30 minutes for large (22.5 oz). They use a probe thermometer and pull from the oven at 195 degrees. A minute or two longer bake allows the panettone to hold firmer.
“One of our biggest challenges is oven space,” Mr. Gulley said. “You have to fit it into your production schedule. We are a little at the mercy of where the oven is. I look for a nice, golden brown color. Some people finish it with egg wash and sanding sugar. We just score it.”
When warm out of the oven, grab panettone by the skewer only and allow it to cool inverted for at least four hours, Mr. George recommended.
“This is a long-fermented, naturally leavened bread with structure,” he said. “It’s not going to completely collapse.”
Panettone is “certainly popular in the United States now,” he added. But if your bakery is the only one to offer it in your marketplace, you may experience some challenge in getting customers to know it. This sweet bread is typically in high demand from early December through Christmas. A year ago, Red Hen sold 300 small ones and 85 large sizes. Their small size sells for $8.50, $19.50 for large.
Looking at the amount of work that goes into panettone and the amount they sell, Mr. George chuckled that they always evaluate whether it is worth the trouble.
“Every year, we wonder if we should really put ourselves through this again, and every year we decide that the holiday season wouldn’t quite be complete if we didn’t make panettone,” he said.