Panettone is the Italian national Christmas cake, and it is notoriously tricky to perfect. So when the version from Pasticceria Giotto was named one of the 10 best in Italy, it was a real honor. But the most striking difference between the panettone at Giotto and the nine others on the list is that Giotto’s is made in a prison.
Inside the Due Palazzi prison (above) on the outskirts of Padua, in northeastern Italy, a crew of inmates in white coats are supervised by four professional pastry chefs. Six days a week, they start baking at 4 a.m., beginning with the brioche that will be served by local pastry shops and hotels. Giotto also produces cookies, pies, nougat, chocolate and ice cream — but panettone is the specialty.
Giovanni, an inmate who was identified only by his first name in accordance with prison guidelines, has been working in the bakery for the last five years of his 23-year sentence. (Officials will not disclose the prisoners’ crimes.)
‘Before I was in prison I had never tasted panettone,’ he said, ‘but I really like it, and every Christmas I get five or six and send them to my family in Sicily.’
The word panettone derives from panetto, a small loaf cake. The suffix, -one, changes the meaning to ‘large cake.’ Similar recipes date back to the Roman Empire, when honey was used to sweeten a type of leavened dough. The cake is mentioned in a recipe book written in the 1500s by Bartolomeo Scappi, a personal chef to popes and kings during the time of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V; it was first referred to as pan de ton (‘luxury bread’) by the 18th-century scholar Pietro Verri in one of his writings.
A well-baked panettone is a point of pride for Italian pasticcerie, and every year Italians consume about 9.5 million of the cakes, mostly around the holidays.
Baking them is a meticulous process that involves — over the course of 72 hours — multiple kneadings and leavenings. After baking for an hour, the cakes are taken out of the oven and allowed to cool while hanging upside down, to keep their characteristic domed tops from falling. In all, the Giotto team will bake more than 80,000 panettone this holiday season.
The baking program, which began in 2005, is run by Work Crossing Cooperative, a nonprofit group that operates prison work programs in the region. In early December, the cooperative even opened a Pasticceria Giotto storefront in Padua.
The Italian prison system is overcrowded, and the national recidivism average is 70 percent, according to the Ministry of Justice, with a majority of inmates returning for sentences longer than their first. That rate drops to 5 percent, however, for inmates who work while incarcerated.
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