Ideas come to me on a whim. Right out of nowhere, bam. I never know why or where they are going to take me.
For example, a few weeks ago, and for no apparent reason, I wanted to see if I could make a sourdough starter using spelt flour. I know how hard it is to be disciplined enough to make and maintain a starter-dough; but I felt I just needed to make it more challenging for whatever reason. I couldn’t find a recipe, so I decided to follow one I had success with a few years ago. Well, after two weeks and six feedings, I think I developed a starter dough that might work. At first I was going to write about the good qualities of spelt and sourdough, but though better of it, partly because I thought I would loose you before you finished reading this sentence.
Yesterday, I put the starter to the test when I chose to make Pandoro. This would be my second attempt at making this traditional Italian celebration bread. Although successful the first I made it, I didn’t have the proper star shaped tin to bake it in. I made them in repurposed coffee cans. They tasted great, but were not very pleasant to look at. A few years ago my daughter presented me with the fabulously shaped mold as a Christmas present, so why not put it to use.
Do you ever stop to think how many things we take for granted? I do. Maybe I’m just nostalgic, but I like to think it is more than that. Recently I started feeling that things are progressing at such a quick pace that we don’t have the time to enjoy them before a newer version comes along.
I don’t own a Smart Phone. Not that I wouldn’t want one, but I’ve always been someone who likes to hold on to things. I don’t get attachment to things, it’s more like, if it’s working why get rid of it? It’s a phone, that’s all I expect from it.
Pandoro, for instance, has been around for centuries. I never gave it much thought until I jotted down that line. “It has been around for centuries!” You can’t say that about many things these days. America is percieved to be "a throw away society". The packaging often outlasts the product. It has come to my attention, that there is literally an island of plastic waste out in the Pacific Ocean you can actually walk on. Most things we purchase today loose their value as it leaves the store. Yet a simple bread recipe has endured for ages. Why?
Perhaps because like most things we deem valuable, it has meaning and purpose. Its design aligns itself with the theory that form follows function, or in this case, form follows purpose. It is rooted in tradition, history, myth and lore, religion and craftsmanship. It was created to remind us of something revered, honored, and respected.
Pandoro comes to us from Verona, Italy. A city that lies on the Adige River in the north central region of the country; it is positioned roughly less than two hours west of Venice. Verona is a city Shakespeare’s chose as the setting for three of his plays. Romeo and Juliet being one of them.
This bread was developed to celebrate the birth of Christ, similar to Milan’s version, Panettone. They both share similar qualities. They are sweet, enriched yeasted breads. However, unlike the highly flavored and scented Panettone, saturated with the essence of vanilla and citrus, punctuated and reinforced with candied fruits, Pandoro comes across much simpler. It is minimally adorned with a light dusting of powdered sugar and faintly perfumed with vanilla.
However, the name speaks volumes. Pandoro translates to, golden bread or bread of gold. Its success dangles on time and patience. The reward is delivered via, aroma, texture, flavor, color and simple elegant beauty. The bread takes its form undoubtedly from the Star of Bethlehem, which was a sign, believed to foretell the birth of a new redeemer king.
I like to envision feuds raging between Milan and Verona, mirroring those of the Capulets and Montagues. Each fighting for the right to boast that their craftsmen were unsurpassed, be it the artist, writer, wine maker, musician, architect, bricklayer, cook or baker.
However, given the opportunity I would have judged the competition a draw, both winners.
I believe the Milanese wanted their bread to be looked upon as a gift. Inspired by the story of the three kings. Each bearing a gift thought to represent the new king’s humanity, mortality, and divinity: Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. Milan would have wanted to make a bread worthy of a king, comprised of rich ingredients, and studded with jewels of candied orange and lemon.
The Veronese bakers might have been more conceptual in their thinking. It seems to me, that Pandoro was meant to evoke the essence of the Christ child himself: unpretentious and humble, approachable and fulfilling, yet noble and rich.
Although I am a fan of new techniques and ideas being tossed around to reinvent our culinary experiences, I also think it is essential to revisit and perpetuate those formulas that came prior. Unlike any other art form, the culinary and pastry arts can accurately permit us to taste, smell, feel, see, and sometimes even hear history as it was. How great is that!