Panettone may have once sounded exotic, but these days, the dome-shaped Italian fruit bread is readily available on American grocery store shelves. And if you're ready to expand your repertoire of global holiday breads, there are many more yeasty, doughy traditions to nibble on. And they all remind us how expensive, imported fruits — like Greek currants and Italian candied citrus peel — have long been a part of our most treasured Christmas foods.
Here, a brief tour of five other fruited holiday breads from around the world.
Julekake is panettone's distant Nordic cousin — but with a little bit of tropical zing.
"It's basically a sweet dough base," explains Kevin E. Hirman, president of Denny's 5th Avenue Bakery in Minneapolis, Minn. "Very rich in eggs and sugar, and filled with candied fruit: orange peel, lemon peel, and red and green cherries, pineapple and raisins."
But the thing that makes it really Norwegian is the cardamom, which runs throughout Scandinavian baking traditions.
Instead of taking on julekake's rhythmic but difficult four Nordic syllables, a lot of customers simply ask for what's come to be known as "Christmas bread." Minnesota is home to many Americans of Norwegian descent, and Hirman estimates that from Thanksgiving to Dec. 24, his bakery sells about 5,000 loaves.
It's a tradition largely carried on by older devotees, and each new generation needs to grow into it, explains Hirman. Younger people might think it's a bit odd, "but once you try it," he says, "you have a whole different outlook, because it's so dang good."
Pan De Jamon
"In Venezuela, a Christmas table cannot be without a pan de jamon," says Michelle Coleman of Miami Beach's Charlotte Bakery, which serves up baked goods from throughout Latin America.
"It is savory, not sweet," she says, and starts with a mildly garlic dough. Then comes the ham (or jamon), bacon, green olives — and raisins. Coleman, originally from Puerto Rico, explains that when she was first dating her husband, Harry (who took over the bakery from his grandparents), he insisted she try the Christmas bread. She was a little uncertain about the salty-sweet mix of ingredients, "but it works!" she discovered. "There's just something about it."
The mixture produces a bread that Coleman describes as "nice and creamy and moist" — unlike some European Christmas loaves often mocked for a dryness that comes from longevity.
In her view, the only drawback is that pan de jamon is one of those holiday traditions hosts tend to buy rather than bake themselves. "I'm sure some people have their recipes that are handed down from their grandmothers," says Coleman, "but it's definitely a more complicated thing to make."
Lassy Raisin Bread
We caught up with Elizabeth Baird, former food editor of Canadian Living and author of more than 25 cookbooks, about the Newfoundland curiosity sometimes called "lassy raisin bread."
"Lassy" is short for molasses. It's an ingredient common on the east coast of Canada "because of the connection between the Caribbean and the maritime provinces," explains Baird. During the slave trade, Newfoundland's salt cod was sent to feed enslaved Africans in exchange for the sugar byproduct they were forced to produce on Caribbean sugar plantations.
"So you'll find molasses in puddings and cakes and pies ... and in these Christmas fruit loaves," Baird says.
The breads go by many names, including Old-Fashioned Christmas Sweet Bread. They're often made with pork fat and cloves, sometimes caraway, always raisins. But apart from this Newfoundland singularity, says Baird, "I don't think there's a tradition in early British Canada or even in Quebec for a special Christmas bread."
Rosca De Reyes
Fany Gerson, author of My Sweet Mexico and the chef-founder of the Brooklyn, N.Y., sweets shop La Newyorkina, walks The Salt through the ingredients for a proper rosca de reyes, or kings' ring, for the Jan. 6 celebration of Epiphany.
Many Catholic countries have their own, sometimes vastly different takes on rosca de reyes. In Mexico, "traditionally, it was made with citron from the cactus called biznaga," Gerson says. "But because citron is in limited production, they now use different kinds of fruits like pineapple, chilacayote [a relative of chayote squash], figs and oranges and cherries." The ingredients can vary, "just so long as they are candied." The sweetness is re-emphasized in a crunchy sugary topping made with lard, butter or shortening.
But the real defining feature of a rosca de reyes is the plastic baby hidden in the dough. Whoever finds the infant Jesus in a slice has to make the tamales for Candelaria, or Candlemas, which is celebrated on Feb. 2.
Gerson, who is Jewish, explains that the kings' ring is much more "a cultural thing" than a Catholic one. "We have it every year," she says. "It's part of tradition. And it's these traditions that bring people together."
For those who still crave something with a little Italian flair, there's a regional specialty that will take your palate well off the worn path.
"Gubana comes from Friuli, [Italy,] right near Croatia on the eastern border, so that's very much the Eastern European influence," explains Kristina Gill, co-author of the forthcoming Tasting Rome: Fresh Flavors and Forgotten Recipes from an Ancient City.
"There are variations, but the standard filling includes raisins, candied fruit rinds, all sorts of nuts, cocoa, honey," says Gill. Then you roll out the yeasted dough, spread the filling on it, "and then roll it up tightly and coil it into a snake."
Gill says she used to be a little skeptical of her friends' excitement when they received authentic gubana from Italian visitors to the U.S. But now, she says, "since living in Italy, I understand what it is to make a really big deal out of a really good version of something."