For lovers of Italian desserts, there’s no shortage of delights to choose from.
From panna cotta to tiramisu and everything in between, there’s something from almost any palate or suitable as the perfect end to any meal.
In a country so beloved for the sweet treats it produces, is it any surprise that they’ve got not just one, but two of the most adored Christmas time delights?
If you didn’t already know, of course I’m talking about panettone and pandoro. Together, these traditional Italian sweets bring families together the world over every holiday season.
But what makes each of them unique?
The primary differences between panettone and pandoro are taste, texture, and ingredients. Panettone is light and fluffy sweet bread that often has ingredients like raisins, candied fruit, citrus peels and zests whereas pandoro is much more dense sweet bread with a texture closer to cake and traditionally doesn’t have any additional ingredients.
Besides these basic differences, there’s so much more to talk about with each of these desserts.
With that said, let’s get right into it by starting at the very beginning!
Table of Contents
Differences in History and Origin
While modern pandoro is usually considered cake, early versions of it that appeared in previous centuries were closer to bread, even though the style of bread it was would limit its consumption to the upper classes and elite segments of society.
In Roman times and through most of the Middle Ages, bread was an important food source, but there were often vast differences between what the lower classes consumed versus societal elites. The common bread was usually quite dull – largely tasteless, hard to chew and dark in color.
In contrast, the upper classes often enjoyed breads quite close to what we consume today. At a minimum, they contained eggs, butter and oil and as the availability of ingredients increased, so too did the luxuriousness of the bread.
As the Renaissance approached, sweet, or “royal”, breads were produced for the nobility and included not only eggs and butter but also flour and sugar.
Venice held great sway in many areas of life during the Renaissance and it’s many believe that cuisine was no exception. In fact, pandoro or “pan d’oro” can be translated to mean “golden bread” because the cakes served at banquets were dusted with gold or adorned with thin layers of edible gold leaf.
Besides these roots, today’s pandoro is thought to be related (at least partially) to another type of Italian sweet bread known as nadalin. It makes sense on several fronts especially when you consider it predates pandoro by several hundred years, at least.
One difference is that pandoro is far more luxurious. It’s richer and more buttery not to mention sweeter and far more dense. Another significant difference is that nadalin features a crusty topping that combines sugar, pine nuts, almonds and marsala wine.
While the evolution of pandoro took centuries, it wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that it took the form we know and love today.
In October 1894, Domenico Melegatti, who was a pastry chef from Verona, Italy, filed for a patented version of pandoro. Approximately six months later, in March 1895, the Kingdom of Italy (through the Ministry of Agriculture) awarded Melegatti an Industrial Property Certificate for his creation.
The award gave Melegatti full credit for inventing everything about the pandoro, including the recipe, the shape of the dessert and, perhaps most importantly, the name.
The first story about the origin of panettone sounds like something Shakespeare might have written himself!
As the legend goes, Ughetto degli Atellani fell in love with a woman far beneath his standing, or at least that was the case for a wealthy nobleman living in Milan at the turn of the 16th century.
The object of his affection was a woman named Adalgisa whose father was the owner of a struggling bakery. Ughetto’s parents made their displeasure clear and didn’t permit their son to pursue Adalgisa directly.
Undaunted, Ughetto hatched a plan that would not only secure the woman of his dreams but also save her family’s business. Ughetto disguised himself well enough to get a job at the bakery and before long added butter and sugar to the bread, which increased its popularity and, of course, sales!
This impressed Adalgisa and so Ughetto continued to improvise by adding additional ingredients to his sweet bread. Among these were raisins, lemon zest, orange zest and eggs. It wasn’t long before Milan’s most prominent subject, the Duke of Milan, embraced the creation and giving the name Pan de Toni. Translated, the term means “bread of Toni”.
Who was Toni?
Toni was Adalgisa’s father and the owner of the once struggling bakery. After ascending to such lofty heights, Adalgisa had become worthy of Ughetto’s family and the two were allowed to marry, thus concluding the first origin story of panettone.
The second version dovetails on the “bread of Toni” portion of the previous tale we recounted, only this version lacks the romance and intrigue of the former.
In this far tamer tale from the 1400s, the chef responsible for the Christmas feast in the court of Duke Ludovico accidentally burned the dessert, ruining it for the partygoers. Obviously, the chef couldn’t serve a burned dessert but when the Duke demanded it, the chef panicked.
Lucky for him, a kitchen assistant who went by the name of Toni explained to the chef that he’d made sweet bread of his own creation and urged the chef to try it. The chef did and thought enough of it that he served it to the Duke and the revelers. In fact, the Duke was so impressed with the dessert; he insisted the chef be congratulated in front of everyone.
However relieved the chef might’ve been by finding a suitable replacement for his burned dessert, he felt uncomfortable taking credit for the replacement he’d served. Instead, he gave credit to the young man who’d offered up his sweet bread creation. From then on, the sweet bread was known as Pan de Toni or today, panettone.
Rounding out our panettone origin story is the final version, which is the most spiritual of the three.
In fact, it involves a nun named Sister Ughetta who created a delectable sweet bread to help raise the spirits of her fellow sisters during Christmas.
It’s said that she added candied fruit and peel to her creation and that just prior to baking it, Sister Ughetta gave it the perfect finishing touch when she fashioned the shape of a crucifix in the dough. Of course, the dessert was an instant success and helped Sister Ughetta add some brightness to the convent’s Christmas celebrations.
No matter which version is true (or not), it can’t be denied that panettone has stood the test of time for hundreds of years and for that, all of us are grateful!
Differences in Ingredients and Preparation
While there are variations of panettone and pandoro, we’ll only be comparing the differences between the traditional versions for simplicity’s sake.
Both pandoro and panettone use ingredients like butter, flour, eggs, milk, cream, sugar, vanilla and yeast.
However, they do differ in a couple of ways.
Traditional panettone is known for the addition of raisins and candied fruit in addition to the usage of lemon peel, lemon zest, orange peel and orange zest.
Pandoro often features a powdered sugar coating that is thought to be a tribute to Italy’s snow capped Alpine peaks.
In terms of preparation, panettone is known for its distinctive shape. When it’s finished baking, it features a tall base with a dome-like structure on top of it. The reason for panettone’s towering height is related to the proofing process, which causes the dough to rise several times prior to baking.
As mentioned earlier, the unique star shape of the pandoro was part of the original patent granted to Domenico Melegatti, the man who is credited with the original popularity of pandoro. Traditional pandoro is still baked and served with the eight-point star shape today.
Differences in Mouthfeel and Taste
The thing about panettone is that it can be very difficult to bake properly if you’ve not had much experience. Often, this is why you’ll read of people who complain that it tastes like dry (or stale) bread.
However, when made well, panettone has a consistency much close to brioche. It’s not only dense and moist but when you add in the citrus and candied fruit flavors, there really is nothing quite like it.
Pandoro is much closer to the taste and texture of cake than panettone is. Much of this has to do with the fact that panettone is allowed to rise multiple times prior to baking, which automatically results in a lighter, fluffier bread.
Hi, I’m Jenny. I have many interests and, some would say, eclectic passions. A few words that best describe me? Hmm, well… Amateur surfer, professional traveler, food lover and writer extraordinaire. Oh, and lover of all furry, four-legged creatures!