Pane di Natale

An Italian Christmas Loaf

Preparation info

  • Difficulty

    Complex

  • Makes

    4

    loaves or cakes

Appears in

Signora Lancellotti sat me down with a cappuccino, and gave me this pane di natale recipe, which she had learned in her mother-in-law’s kitchen. Not nearly as rich as our own Christmas cakes and puddings, it is made with the ingredients that would be found in most larders in the village near Modena where she and her family live. Concentrated grape juice is not available here, so use prune juice or ordinary grape juice, enriching with a little of the thick, raisiny sweet Pedro Ximenez sherry.

Ingredients

  • approx. 1 kg (2 lbs) dried fruit and nuts, including walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, pine nuts, raisins and figs
  • about 1 litre (32 oz) carton red grape or prune juice
  • 4 tablespoons Pedro Ximénez sherry
  • approx. 1 kg (2 lbs) strong plain flour
  • 50 g (2 oz) yeast
  • 4 tablespoons mincemeat – optional

Method

Prepare the fruit and nuts the day before you bake. Chop the larger nuts and the figs, and put all the fruit and nuts in a bowl. Add enough juice to cover, and stir in the sherry. Leave for 24 hours, and stir the mixture occasionally.

The next day, mix the flour and yeast, and stir in the fruit and nuts and enough liquid to make a dough. Add the mincemeat, if using it. You can, if you wish, let it rise slowly, covered, for 24 hours in a cool place, or let it rise in a shorter time at a higher temperature. In other words, treat it as you would bread, and let it work to your timetable rather than the other way round. Shape into four loaves and place in greased and floured tins, or shape into round cakes about 12 cm. (5 inches) in diameter and place on baking sheets. Allow to prove for an hour or so, covered with a light, damp cloth. Bake at 180½C/350½F/gas mark 4 in a preheated oven for 20 minutes, then turn down the heat a couple of notches, and finish baking for a further 20 to 25 minutes until the loaves sound hollow when tapped. The crust will be very hard, and traditionally the cake is stored for eight days before eating, covered with a cloth moistened with saba, or thick grape juice, which ‘feeds’ and moistens the cake. Or you can do as was done in Camillo Lancellotti’s mother’s house, and brush the loaves with a goose feather dipped in the liquid. The cake would be stored in the larder.

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