In Italy, from November to January, the supermarkets are invaded with an army of spaceship-shaped boxes of big, fluffy dome cakes (really sweet-yeast bread) called Panettone or Pandoro. First: Panettone is with raisins and other dried fruits, Pandoro is just plain bread/cake (I have a hard time deciding what I want to call this in English).
I’ve come to love the tradition, even though it’s absolutely opposite of typical desserts that filled my childhood; cookies and brownies heavy with butter and fat, chocolates, cheesecake, ice cream with hot fudge. It’s certainly healthier, though there are many ways to make that not so. In the center of Florence, you’ll find the gelato shops getting creative with the cakes, hollowing them out and filling them with ice cream or slicing them up and adding layers of Nutella. Those are for special occasions, however. Many Italians just like it with their morning coffee or a nighttime latte – dipping it like the US dips Oreos.
There are a few things I don’t understand about this cake, however. First, it’s enormous compared to everything else here. Every single other grocery product that I buy here is equivalent to a “travel” size in the US. In Massachusetts, we’d get a gallon (or two) of milk at a time. Here, if I’m feeling really crazy, I’ll get a half gallon. I haven’t bought a dozen eggs in I don’t know how long. When I go home now to visit, I gawk at the size of the container of cream cheese. A Dunkin Donuts large coffee terrifies me.
So why, then, during Christmas, all of a sudden these things that barely fit in bike baskets are the most popular and are given out like breath mints? Yes, I get it that they’re great for parties, big families etc. Please just remember that I just recently admitted that I don’t buy paper towels anymore because they are too big and awkward to carry home. The Pandoro box takes up most of the space under our Christmas tree.
The cardboard box never closes again once it is opened. This signifies, as many industrially-packaged Italian products seem to do, that the company does not believe in leftovers. Inside the box, a brown cake sits in a plastic bag and a white packet of powdered sugar usually comes with it. Instead of carefully sifting the sugar onto the cake, Rami pours the sugar into the bag, ties it up, and then furiously shakes it above his head – creating a ridiculous Christmas-cake snow globe – to cover the Pandoro completely.
The removal out of the bag afterward is a bit tricky, normally producing a cloud of sugar, and then the options of slicing and/or pulling it apart generally include more mess. Then, because Rami and I are two people and we aren’t Will Ferrel in Elf, we can’t possibly finish the thing so we have to find a container big enough to store it (don’t have one). So we just keep a bag of cake and sugar on our counter and it’s just messy.
As I write this, I guess the chaos of the Panettone isn’t that different from the pastries at the bar. Flaky, sugary, covered in honey or powdered sugar, they’re served on a little plate – normally with a single wax napkin underneath. Even the most delicate eaters leave a few croissant crumbs on the floor. On weekends especially, the floors in front of the coffee counters are heaven for dogs, and the baristas welcome the help with the sweeping.
I now relate to the mess as a part of the holiday here. Kind of like the mess of wrapping paper after opening presents in the US. A powdered-sugar table means it was a successful holiday, and a bag of cake on the table means that coffee tomorrow morning is still going to be extra special.