‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse . . .’
Unless you happen to have left a little plate of treats out for Father Christmas, in which case said mouse is probably having a mince pie-fuelled field day as you sleep.
When I was little, we’d always leave a tray of treats out on Christmas Eve – homemade mince pies for Father Christmas, carrots for the reindeer and a snifter of brandy to help our festive friend on his way (or my Dad to sleep, the more cynical amongst you might suggest). The next morning my big brother and I would excitedly examine the crumb-specked plate, empty glass and convincingly nibbled carrots, taking them as evidence that Santa and his helpers had enjoyed our hospitality.
Now we’re a little older this tradition has slipped, but food still plays an important part in our family Christmas Eve. It’s a time when we can all gather round a table – without the ceremony of Christmas Day – to indulge in some festive favourites; smoked salmon and slices of buttered brown bread, squeezed with lemon and cracked with black pepper, meaty Italian sausages and soft braised lentils, earthy vegetables, ham and cheeses, nuts and seeds. The food is delicious but simple, preparing for the feasting to come, and dessert, as such, tends to come in the form of a big bowl of clementines and a giant panettone.
Resplendent in its shiny brown paper packaging and elegant in its simplicity, panettone is crammed with the flavours of Christmas. Citrus, vanilla, honey and spices are bound with fruit in a dough rich with butter and yellow with egg yolks. My Dad gets ours from an artisan Italian baker, and this beautiful loaf always proves far more popular in our household than Christmas cake or mince pies, making appearances at breakfast, lunch and teatime in various torn, sliced, buttered and toasted states.
Last weekend I made my own panettone, adding a few chocolate chunks (because I couldn’t resist) and waiting in anticipation while it baked, filling the house with rich aromas. It was good, but if I’m completely honest my panettone couldn’t compete with those you can get in the very best bakeries. Not yet, anyway. The proof here is in the proving – it takes time to make the perfect panettone and my recipe was a bit of a cheat, involving only a few hours from mixing the dough to the finished thing. I could have followed Dan Lepard’s advice, or this recipe from Wild Yeast, but instead I went for the easy option and adapted one from Delicious magazine. Delicious it was. Authentic and artisan it wasn’t. Sometimes that extra time is needed for a reason, and when I have a free weekend once the craziness of Christmas is over, I’m determined to give the proper version a go.
In the meantime, I’d like to share this simple little recipe to keep you going through the holidays. Shop-bought panettone can be both huge and expensive, so unless you have an enormous family you may well end up with some slightly stale leftover loaf you can’t quite bring yourself to throw away. Don’t. Blitz it into beautiful sweet breadcrumbs, bake it into a panettone bread and butter pudding, or best of all, transform it into this; the ultimate toasted sandwich. Delicious after dinner, great for afternoon tea or devilishly decadent at breakfast, this recipe is what slightly stale panettone was made for. It’s the perfect midnight feast, great for drunken revellers or those returning home from midnight mass, and if you leave a little plate out for Santa this Christmas Eve, I guarantee you’ll find it gone in the morning.
Happy Baking. And Happy Christmas.
Toasted Panettone & Nutella Sandwich with Vin Santo & Cantuccini Cream
(serves two – all quantities are approximate, feel free to tweak to your tastes)
4 x slices slightly stale panettone
2 x large spoons Nutella
1 x knob of salty butter
100ml double cream
1 tsp golden caster sugar
Zest of half a clementine
A few cantuccini biscuits, crushed
Cut thick slices of your panettone. Slather two slices generously with Nutella and sandwich together with the other halves. Lightly butter the outsides of your sandwiches and press into a toasted sandwich maker or fry for a couple of minutes on each side.
While your sandwich is toasting, whip the cream in a bowl with a pinch of golden caster sugar and your clementine zest. Splash in some vin santo to taste and beat until combined and fairly stiff.
Remove your sandwiches from the toaster/pan – the edges should be beautifully golden and toasty. Slice in half so the hot chocolate centre begins to ooze out, and top with a dollop of your boozy cream. Crumble over some cantuccini crumbs and serve.