You can buy an industrial “Christmas” panettone for under ten bucks, something made in a factory last summer that sits on the supermarket shelf waiting for December. (It will taste like sweetened sawdust.) You can try to make your own at home, but it takes 27 hours, start to finish, waiting for the yeast to rise, and rise again. You have to add spendthrift amounts of butter and egg yolks; you have to watch times and temperatures like a hawk, and when it comes out of the oven it’s still so delicate that it will collapse like a soufflé unless you hang it upside down, like a bat, on a skewer. Then, once it cools, it still has to “mature” for about a week so that its aromatic ingredients (the citrus, the rum, the vanilla) can develop their full flavors and fragrances.
It is, as the New York Times pointed out a few years back, the Everest of baking projects.
Panettone dough is wildly sensitive, demanding and occasionally infuriating, following its own unique logic and schedule. Built up in stages, it can’t be rushed or made to wait. It requires an investment of ingredients, a deep understanding of fermentation and attention to pH levels, along with constant attention.
Give it all that, and a panettone can still go wrong. Bakers from Pasadena to Pittsburgh say that’s exactly why they’re so obsessed with the high-maintenance dough: No bread is more difficult, or more rewarding, to get right.
Maria Coassin, the owner of Gelatiamo in downtown Seattle, can produce no more than 100 panettone a day, essentially by hand, with good cheer and artisanal dedication. She finished baking the first batch today, and already has 1,000 loaves pre-ordered. What’s not spoken for in advance goes on sale to the general public this Thursday, Dec. 2nd.
Coassin grew up in a family of bakers in the small town of Maniago, just over 10,000 people, midway between Venice and Trieste in northeastern Italy and known throughout Europe for the local industry: knife-making. The Giulian Alps tower over the flood plains of the Po River. The cows are milked for cheese, and the pigs, fed on the whey, become prosciutto. The mountain streams provide a ready and reliable source of energy to mill grain, stoke forges, and turn lathes.
To manufacture highly sophisticated automobiles, for example, you need a work force familiar with precision tools, and most of Italy’s racing cars (Maserati, Lamborghini, etc.) are built in the region. But those workers need to eat, too, and the Coassin Bakery has prospered for five generations. With loving parents and five older brothers, Maria was well looked-after, but she realized early-on that the family business was limiting. Pastries and gelato, she knew even then, would be her field.
Not yet 20, she married an American airman stationed at the nearby Aviano Air Force Base, moved to California, and took a job with McDonald’s so she could learn English and become versed in American business practices. When her husband retired from the military a few years later, she’d climbed the corporate ladder from mopping floors and washing dishes to assistant manager. She was ready to set out on her own, but didn’t want to stay in California. They flipped a coin: Seattle or Atlanta.
She signed on with an educational supply company in Seattle while she looked for a spot to open her own business. Two brave souls opened gelato shops, by which time Coassin had a name ready to go: a made-up word that’s the Italian equivalent of I Love Sushi: “Gelato Ti Amo,” or Gelatiamo. (To an Italian speaker, it sounds as if you’re saying “Let’s go eat gelato.”)
Her gelato shop (and it’s primarily a gelateria, not a bakery) has now stood on a busy downtown corner for two decades, but it almost didn’t get started. Coassin had almost no financing, so she cashed out her share of the family bakery business; it came to $200,000. Her father pitched in another $50,000 to help her buy equipment. (Reminder: this was serious money 25 years ago.) In fact, he came to visit the first year, in 1996. “What can I do to help?” he would ask. It was a cold winter, not much demand for that sexy but little-known Italian newcomer, gelato. (Lots of customers thought it was cream cheese.) So Coassin’s dad started making panettone.
The name, by the way, is an Italian suffix, “-one” (OH-nay), something bigger, grander. So polpetta, meatball; polpettone, meatloaf. Minestra, soup; minetsrone, fancy soup (lots of vegetables). Pane, bread; panettone, fancy bread for the holidays. More brioche than fruitcake, not dense like a German Stollen, but bread-y, sweet, yeasty, with plenty of run-soaked raisins, and candied orange zest and lemon bits.
In her two tiny convection ovens, in the bakery below her ice cream shop, Coassin can only bake 16 panettones at a time, but she gets a lot of satisfaction from knowing that her brothers in Italy are doing exactly the same thing at the same hour. FaceTime conversations are not unheard of. And after all that effort, maybe 1,500 one-pound loaves of panettone, priced at $20 apiece. (A special treat, Gelatiamo’s panettone filled with zabaglione-flavored gelato, is sometimes available by the slice.) Add it up, and it might seem barely worth the effort. But it’s a fifth-generation thing in Maniago, and a 25-year Seattle tradition now, and Coassin won’t give it up.
“You have to remember that we are not a full bakery, we are a gelateria and pastry shop,” Coassin said in an email. “We still do things they way my dad taught me 25 years ago adjusting our family recipe to ingredients and equipment here!”
A couple of years ago, she tweaked the blend of flours a bit so the dough would be more elastic and the panettone lighter. More sweet goodies have been added. “Maria’s Panettone” is a triumph. Barely 1,500 loaves, remember. Same price as always, $19.95, and she ships anywhere in the country.
And if she’s sold out by the time you get down to Third & Union, here’s a list, compiled by the Washington Post, of panettone bakers who also ship.