It was early November 2006 and I was just two months into my quarter life crisis. I had finished the course work for my Masters program a few months previous and was half-heartedly working on my thesis, as well as working full-time. I was twenty-five, alive, and itching to skip town. I remember listening to Breakdown by Jack Johnson on repeat in my car, feeling positively stuck on a path I couldn’t see a way off of. It wasn’t a bad path, but I was feeling antsy, bored, and uninspired.
I hope this old train breaks down
Then I could take a walk around
And see what there is to see…
All the people in the street
That I’ll never get to meet
If these tracks don’t bend somehow
Belle (yeah, that’s right, from Beauty and the Beast) knew where I was coming from when she sang: “I want adventure in the great wide somewhere / I want it more than I can tell.” Even as a kid watching Disney movies, words like these resonated and stuck in my bones. My heart and mind were completely elsewhere. I was tired of being a spectator; I wanted to start participating in life.
It was on one of those days in early November when a friend from my program, Laura, forwarded me an e-mail. “In the spirit of helping you put off your thesis,” was the subject line. (I did eventually finish that thesis, by the way.)
I had no one in Germany at first. No friends, no support network. Instead, I had immigration offices. Visas. Foreign languages. Bank cards that don’t work. People who don’t understand your hand gestures as a means of communication, or your feeble first attempts at their language. Currencies that don’t make any sense. Pocket dictionaries to help me understand my washing machine. I took photos of ordinary houses in my neighbourhood that, to me, were beautiful. I was an outsider. No, I was not in the middle of a desert or rainforest, but life was infinitely more different now I and had to develop a new set of life skills, fast.
Rather than feeling intimidated, however, I was absolutely romanced by the idea of starting fresh in a new place. In practice, it wasn’t always that way: I do recall that first New Year’s Eve being particularly lonely, in my kitty cat pajamas, feeling friendless save for my 2 Euro bottle of wine. But all that did was make me determined to never find myself in that position again. Clearly I was ok with being alone, but clearly I was not ok with being alone on holidays. So I made friends. Really wonderful ones. Friends who I haven’t seen in a long time now but who I miss dearly. Everyday. They’re an important part of my personal history.
I found one of these friends in my supervisor at work, Paolo. No joke, and no blowing smoke up anyone’s any thing, I was extremely fortunate to find myself working under the best supervisor in the best unit of the organization. It’s just a fact. It was a great match.
Paolo was and is truly one of a kind. He started out as my supervisor, became my mentor, then my friend, and then a combination of all three. He gave me challenging, meaningful work I could feel proud of, when he easily could have had me making photocopies or taking on everyone’s grunt work. He praised my skills and work in front of anyone who would listen. He had weekly, exclusive chats over tea with me to check in on how I was feeling. Was I being given gratifying work? Was anyone causing me problems or not taking me seriously? Where did I see myself in 3 months time? 3 years time?
Who does that?
As time went by, I came to learn that Paolo had a bothersome, trouble-making sweet tooth. Trouble-making for me, I should add. Hailing from the Italian part of Switzerland, lean and fit, Paolo would sashay into work every day with chocolates, marzipan, pastries, and cakes. “Oh, but I just got this from Switzerland and it’s gorgeous! Just try a little bit?”
One of my favourite things Paolo used to bring in was panettone: an eggy, Italian Christmas loaf full of raisins and citrus. The memories I have of it are tucked away and wrapped up in the same soft spot as my memories of those initial days and weeks of my life in Germany. Of all the sweets and treats I was privy to that year, there was something special about panettone that warmed my heart. The spongy texture, buttery flavour, and its subtle, citrusy sweetness was downright intoxicating. Comfort food. Paolo would sweep into work with it in those pretty boxes tied with ribbon, and I was powerless to resist.
I have Paolo to thank for a lot. I ended up staying in that position for almost a year, and it was this experience that set an important standard for me, professionally, in terms of what I expect from and want to contribute to my place of employment. It was also Paolo’s excitement over food that sparked my own curiosity and sent my culinary journey into over-drive.
Adapted from The International Collection: Home-Cooked Meals From Around the World
1 pkg active dry yeast (2 1/4 tsp.)
2/3 cup warm (not hot) milk
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup Calvados
1/2 cup golden raisins
4 egg yolks
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1 Tbsp. orange zest (from 1 large orange)
1 Tbsp. lemon zest (from 1 large lemon)
1 Tbsp. pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 tsp. salt
3/4 cup butter, softened
4 cups (approx.) all-purpose flour
1/2 cup chopped candied, mixed peel
2 tsp butter, melted
For the Sponge: In a large bowl, sprinkle yeast over milk; cover and let stand until yeast starts to rise to surface, about 10 minutes. Stir in flour to make a sticky dough. Cover with greased plastic wrap and let rise in warm, draft-free place until bubbly and doubled in bulk, about 1 1/2 hours.
For the Dough Mixture: In the meantime, microwave Calvados on high until hot, about 20 seconds. Add raisins; cover and let stand until plump, about 1 hour. When finished, reserve the liquid, and drain the raisins, pressing to extract the liquid. Set aside separately.
In large bowl with electric mixer, beat yolks, eggs, sugar, orange zest, lemon zest, vanilla, salt and reserved Calvados until light and thickened. Beat in butter, 1 tbsp at a time, to form curdled-looking mixture. Add sponge and 3 cups of the flour; mix by hand until a sticky dough forms. Transfer to a well-floured surface; knead, adding remaining flour as necessary, until smoth and rather buttery, about 8 minutes. Let rest for 5 minutes.
Press down dough. Knead in raisins and mixed peel. Place in greased bowl; cover with greased plastic wrap. Let rise in warm, draft-free place until doubled in bulk, about 2 hours. Punch down dough. Turn out onto floured surface; form into a ball, pinching bottom to make the top smooth.
Grease a panettone mould (leave ungreased if using a store-bought paper mould) or a 2-lb (900g) coffee can. If using the can, line the bottom and sides with parchment paper, extending 1 inch (2.5 cm) above the rim. Place dough, seam side down, in mould. Cover and let rise in a warm, draft-free place until doubled in bulk, about 2 hours. (You can also let rise in the refrigerator for up to 12 hours; remove from refrigerator 1 hour before baking.)
For the Topping: Cut 1/4-inch (5 mm) deep X shape in top; brush with butter.
Bake in bottom third of 350F (180C) oven until tester inserted in centre comes out clean, 90 to 105 minutes, covering with foil after 40 minutes or once the top is milk chocolate in colour. Let cool on rack for 1 hour. Pull the paper to remove from the can, if using. (Make ahead: Wrap and store for up to 1 day or overwrap with heavy-duty foil and freeze for up to 2 weeks.)
If using paper moulds, you can cut right into the paper to get your wedge of wonderful Christmas cake.
Makes 1 loaf (12 slices).
Chapter 3: Panettone & “Let’s Make Christmas”
Panettone takes a long time to make. A really long time to make. The ingredients are not extravagant, however, and the method is quite straightforward, so it’s worth a shot if you happen to be around the house for the day. I started making the sponge at 8:45AM last Saturday morning. The panettone went into the oven at 4:30PM, came out at 6:10PM, and by 8 o’clock at night I was eating my first piece in years. Eyes closed, stupid grin on face.
Panettone is one heartwarming gift. If Paolo lived a little closer, I’d make him some and hope against hope that it measured up to the bread he remembers from home.
Chapter 4: Final Notes
Finally, I just recently reviewed The International Collection: Home-Cooked Meals From Around the World by The Canadian Living Test Kitchen – where I found this panettone recipe – over at CookThatBook. I’d love it if you stopped by to read my review and check out the other recipes I tested! You can find my review here.
What kinds of gifts will you be making this year?