Italy has many different Christmas sweets, ranging from simple cookies to extraordinarily elaborate puddings and cakes. Most are regional: Naples has struffoli, fried dough balls dipped in honey and decorated with candy sprinkles; Siena has panforte, a medieval fruitcake made with honey; and the Abruzzo region has caggionetti, fried ravioli stuffed with chestnuts and chocolate. But Pandoro and Panettone, the Christmas cakes of Verona and Milano, have become wildly popular throughout Italy, and internationally, because they can be baked in industrial quantities and will keep fresh long enough to be distributed over great distances.
Because of this, pastry shops most everywhere in Italy make panettone in addition to their local specialties. The traditional panettone is a light, airy cake with candied fruit and raisins in the dough, but these days many less-traditional variations abound: with frosting and slivered almonds on top, chocolate chips in place of candied fruit, custard or lemon-cream filling, or with chocolate frosting and orange-cream 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 simply dusted with powdered sugar, but these days it also comes with many different flavored 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 filling to suit your tastes, and also include ingredients—fresh berries, for example—that couldn't be used in mass-produced 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, when some enjoy leftover slices of panettone or pandoro, toasted and buttered for breakfast with a cappuccino.
Edited by Danette St Onge