If there are two desserts more closely associated with Christmas than panettone and fruitcake, you’d be hard pressed to name them!
In fact, in some parts of the world, the holiday season simply isn’t the same without these traditional treats at the center of any dessert table.
With that said, I want to pause and mention that since there are many types of fruitcake across the globe, it wouldn’t be practical to compare panettone to all of them. Instead, we’ll be using the traditional American-style of fruitcake for comparison.
Considering that, some questions do come to mind.
Would you say that they’re both cake? Or bread?
Which came first?
But most of all, are they the same thing?
The short answer is no, panettone and fruitcake are not the same thing even though they might share some of the same ingredients.
No need to be!
The main difference between panettone and fruitcake is that the texture of panettone is closer to bread like brioche than cake, whereas traditional fruitcake is often dark, moist and rich and very “cakelike” in its flavor profile. Beyond the texture, some variations of fruitcake might also include spirits like brandy or rum, whereas traditional panettone does not include any alcohol.
As you might expect, there’s even more that separates these scrumptious delights from one another and in this article, we’ll be uncovering all of them for you.
So, if you’re ready, let’s begin!
Although modern fruitcakes have found their place as a traditionally seasonal dessert, the origin of them can be traced back to Roman times, where their consumption was far more common.
It’s thought that the Roman ancestor was comprised of a barley mash containing regional nuts and seeds, along with raisins. Most often, pine nuts and pomegranate seeds were used.
In fact, it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that preserved fruits began to be used as a regular ingredient, along with the addition of honey as a sweetener.
Fruitcakes have always preserved well, so it should come as no surprise that their popularity surged throughout Europe during this time.
This trend continued with the colonization of America and, perhaps more importantly, the use of sugar as an ingredient took hold there once it became obvious that it vastly increased the length that fruit could be preserved.
As for panettone, the origin stories surrounding it are nearly as fanciful as the dessert itself!
That’s right, there’s more than one.
In fact, there are no fewer than three tales that relate to the history of the beloved treat!
The first of these is what you might expect from a dessert created in Italy – a romantic tale of epic proportions.
According to the legend, there was a 16th century nobleman named Ughetto degli Atellani who fell head over heels in love with a woman named Adalgisa. Ordinarily, there’d be nothing unusual about two people being in love except, in this case, the object of Ughetto’s affection was beneath him in society.
This was such a problem that his parents forbid Ughetto from pursuing Adalgisa whose family owned a bakery that had fallen on hard times.
However, rather than be deterred by his parents’ displeasure or the financial struggles of Adalgisa’s family, Ughetto devised a plan to fix both problems at once. Using a clever disguise, Ughetto secured a job at the bakery with an idea to improve the company’s profits.
After he started working there, he secretly began adding butter and sugar to the family’s bread recipe, which dramatically improved sales. Adalgisa was understandably impressed by the innovative apprentice baker and so this inspired Ughetto to improvise even further. Soon he added other ingredients like eggs, raisins and citrus zest.
This creation found its way to the Duke of Milan who so loved it that he decreed it be named, Pan de Toni. Translated from Italian, this roughly means “bread of Toni”.
Now, you’re probably wondering who Toni was since he’s not been mentioned. Toni was Adalgisa’s father and the proprietor of the ailing bakery. However, with the blessing of the Duke, Adalgisa’s family rapidly ascended in society which cleared the way for Ughetto to finally realized his dream of making Adalgisa his bride.
There is another version of Pan de Toni tale however, it occured under far different circumstances than the romance between Ughetto and Adalgisa.
This second origin story takes place during the 1400s in the court of Duke Ludovico. It seems that the chef responsible for the annual Christmas feast ruined the dessert by burning it by accident. Unfortunately for the chef, the Duke still wanted dessert served to his guests which left the chef in an awkward position to say the least.
As luck would have it however, there was an assistant working with the chef who offered up a recipe of his own for sweet bread. Left with little alterenative, the chef told his assistant, who went by the name of Toni, to make some for him to try.
Not only did the chef think it was good enough to serve but the Duke loved it so so much that he insisted presenting the chef to the partygoers as a way of thanking him. Whether it was his conscience or thankfulness for his good fortune, the chef realized he couldn’t take all the credit. Instead, he confessed about the help he’d received and from that point forward, the bread was known as Pan de Toni.
The third, and final, origin story involves a nun concerned for the well being of her fellow sisters during Christmas.
In an effort to keep spirits high, Sister Ughetta put her talent for baking to good use. It’s said that she created a very special kind of sweet bread. To give it that little something extra, citrus peel and candied fruit were added and just prior to baking, she shaped the dough to resemble a cross.
While the shape of the bread has changed since that special day, the ingredients that made it so beloved remain largely the same.
So, which version do you think is factual?
While the true history of panettone is likely lost for good, the essence of those early recipes remains with us to this day and for anyone who’s a fan of it, that’s something we can all be happy about!
Ingredient and Preparation Differences
There are variations on both the panettone and fruitcake recipes, but to keep our comparisons simple, we’ll limit the discussion to the traditional styles.
While they do share some ingredients like flour, eggs, water, sugar, raisins and yeast, there are some notable differences.
In terms of panettone, citrus zest from fruits such as lemons and oranges plays a central role in giving panettone its distinctive flavor.
The same could be said for traditional fruitcake, whose dark appearance is often the result of including molasses (or dates) as ingredients. Also, aside from raisins, traditional fruitcake often features additional candied fruits like pineapple and cherries.
Beyond ingredients, one of the defining features of panettone is the unique domelike shape of the finished dessert. The dome sits high atop a perfectly baked base that attains its height thanks to dough that rises multiple times during its proofing process.
Most often, fruitcakes are either baked in a circular shape with a large hole in the center or as a loaf. However, unlike panettone which is defined by its shape, fruitcake doesn’t have any such restrictions.
Hey there, I’m Melody! I’m a lifelong foodie and love talking about it to anyone who’s willing to listen (or read!) about my opinions. My favorite pastimes include cooking, eating my cooking and thinking about what I’m going to make next!