Italy has a great many Christmas sweets, ranging from simple cookies to extraordinarily elaborate puddings and cakes. Most are regional -- you'll get struffoli -- fritters dipped in a honey syrup, decorated with spangles, and arranged in a wreath -- in Naples, Panforte -- a medieval fruitcake made with honey -- in Siena, and caggionetti -- fried ravioli stuffed with chestnuts, chocolate, and other delights -- in the Abruzzo, but Pandoro and Panettone, the Christmas cakes of Verona and Milano, have achieved national popularity because they can be baked in industrial quantities and will keep fresh long enough to be distributed throughout the country.
Because of this, pastry shops most everywhere in Italy make panettone in addition to their local specialties, and those who want something with a more individual touch than industry can provide visit their bakers rather than the supermarket. Not that one can't get some pretty unusual touches in the supermarket; the traditional panettone is a light, airy cake with candied fruit and raisins in the dough, but I also found, among other things, traditional dough with frosting and slivered almonds on top; frosting and slivered almonds on top but no candied fruit or raisins in the dough; frosting on top and almonds in the dough; with chocolate frosting and custard filling arranged in a spoke pattern (no fruit or almonds), and with chocolate frosting and orange custard filling.
Pandoro, which is a light, airy cake made with a great deal of butter and baked in a high 8-pointed star-shaped pan, is generally just dusted with confectioners' sugar (nothing in the dough), though there are versions with custard fillings.
Some of the variations are obviously meant to accommodate people's preferences, for example panettone without candied fruit for those who don't like it, but the stuffed ones derive from the tradition of jazzing up one's holiday cake, and though they can be good it is much more satisfying to jazz up one's Panettone or Pandoro at home: You can tailor the stuffing to suit your tastes, and also include ingredients -- fresh berry fruit for example -- that couldn't be used in commercially stuffed cakes because they simply wouldn't keep. Panettone is also an excellent base for puddings and other desserts, and this comes in handy because there is invariably leftover panettone to deal with on December 26th. Some is (quite) nice for breakfast with caffélatte, but if you recycle one following one of the recipes below you'll have a fine dessert for New Year's Eve.
Milano's classic Christmas Cake!
An older recipe; difficulty: Advanced
A somewhat easier, more modern recipe.
Verona's rich, buttery wonder adds a special dimension to Christmas.
All of these can be made with commercially prepared panettone or pandoro, at which point they become much easier to do:
Pandoro Stuffed with Lemony Mascarpone Cream and decorated with Glazed Fruit
An extremely rich Pandoro, stuffed with lemony Mascarpone cream and beautifully decorated with berry fruit.
Pandoro Cake with Dessert Wine: Torta di Pandoro al Vino Passito
People often suggest pairing sweet with sweet wines. In this case the wine goes into a pandoro cake, and the results are very tasty.
Panettone Stuffed with Whipped Cream and Candied Citron: Panettone Ripieno
Stuffed Panettone, with a rich filling made with whipped cream and candied citron, and a red wine sauce with figs and spices: Perfect for Christmas Eve.
Panettone Stuffed with Chocolate Cream and Strawberries: Panettone Farcito
This recipe calls for small panettoni (they come in several sizes, and these are about a pint in volume, though you could use a full-sized panettone if need be), which are stuffed with chocolate cream and strawberries.
Panettone Stuffed with Ice Cream and decorated with Candied Orange Zest: Panettone Ripieno di Gelato
Another recipe for pint-sized panettoni, though it will also work with a standard sized cake. Quick, and no alcohol.
Panettone Ice Cream Dome: Cupola di Panettone con Gelato
A panettone is used to line a mold and filled with ice cream. Very tasty, and it does contain limoncello, which adds sunny zing.
Panettone in Orange Sauce: Panettone all'Arancio
Most panettone dishes feature either a full-sized panettone or individual panettoni. This instead is made with slices, beautifully decorated with oranges.
Panettone filled with Mascarpone Cream: Panettone Farcito al Mascarpone
This is extraordinarily rich, and though it will take a bit of effort is well worth it.
You may well find yourself with leftover panettone, this is a quick and tasty way of putting it to use that will also be nice when company comes calling during the holidays.
Another Panettone Sformato
This time flavored with oranges.
Triple Filled Panettone, or Panettone al Triplo Ripieno
A delightfully rich panettone with a creamy triple-layered filling: Pistachios, chocolate pear, and caramelized mascarpone.