Pandoro or pan d'oro is a sweet Italian bread popularly served around the Christmas season. The name means “gold bread” and is a reference to the deep golden cake that makes up this traditional Italian treat. Many specialty food markets carry the bread in December, but it can also be made at home.
According to Italian experts, pandoro was first created in the romantic city of Verona, best known as the home of eternally star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet. The bread represented a change in taste for Italians, who were beginning to favor lighter, fluffier cakes over the dense pastries previously in vogue. There are several conflicting stories about the origin of the bread: some suggest it actually dates back to ancient Roman bread recipes that had similar ingredients, though most modern pandoro recipes are based on 18th and 19th century versions of the bread.
Pandoro is made distinctive not only by its rich taste and deep golden hue, but also by its curious shape. The bread is baked in a tall, ridged pan, giving each slice a star-shaped appearance if the bread is cut horizontally. Its association with Christmas may come from this shape, as it is reminiscent of the star followed by the Wise Men in the biblical Christmas story. Made in many sizes, traditional pandoro baking pans can be found at many cooking supply stores and online.
The basic ingredients of a pandoro include yeast, eggs, flour, butter, lemon zest, vanilla extract, and sugar. Some pandoro breads are baked plain and served with powdered sugar on top, while others include ingredients such as dried fruit in the batter. The center of the cake can also be hollowed out and filled with cream or other fillings. It can also be drizzled with an alcohol-infused glaze or iced using traditional flavors such as almonds, vanilla, or anise.
As a yeast bread, it is important to allow a homemade pandoro to rise in a warm environment for a considerable amount of time. Some pans for the bread are up to 10 inches (25.4 cm) in height, meaning that a flat or low-rising loaf could be a disaster. Follow directions for the recipe carefully, and take especial care if proofing or activating yeast in warm water. While water that is too cold will not be sufficient to activate the yeast, water that is too warm will kill off most of the vital yeast, preventing a rise from occurring.
One of the easiest ways to enjoy pandoro is to purchase a store-bought version and dress it up with glazes or filling. Remember that the flavors of this sweet bread are subtle but rich and generally will be overwhelmed by extremely sweet icing or heavily flavored filling. Do not overlook the simple pleasures of a plain version as well. While less glamorous, this type is excellent for dipping in coffee or tea and is a nice substitute for the many powerfully-flavored Christmas desserts.