Berkshire Mountain Bakery: New life for the poor, misunderstood Panettone

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GREAT BARRINGTON — It is maligned and despised, ridiculed and refused.

It is re-gifted to enemies.

But baker Richard Bourdon says he has freed the Panettone from the penitentiary of holiday food hell and damnation.

"It's like if somebody had been put in prison for the wrong reason and that's sad," Bourdon said. "It should be celebrated."

But lately, it hasn't been. This leavened sweet bread has a history all the way back to the Roman Empire. But its modern variant has taken a beating for lack of sourdough, turning it into a doorstop, said Bourdon, owner of Berkshire Mountain Bakery in Housatonic.

Sourdough rescues its texture, Bourdon said with his squinty grin. "It's so soft you can't cut it. I don't know what heaven's like, but it's heaven."

The Quebec-born Bourdon also said he's not sure if he's ever had cotton candy, but he thinks it might be like that.

With yeast, these notorious cakes get dense. But Bourdon said traditionally, Panettone was made with sourdough.

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The batter is soupy, stretchy, but still holds together in its paper baking sleeves. Each cake has about half a stick of butter and two ounces of sugar. It's got raisins and candied orange that he rinses to keep the cake from getting too sweet. A sauce of almond and cornmeal, egg whites, sugar and cocoa gets poured over the batter and sinks to the bottom. The cake is sprinkled with slivered almonds and powdered sugar, put in the oven for about 45 minutes, and then each cake is hung upside down so it won't collapse.

There are no preservatives, but this thing will last.

"You can worship it every day until Christmas and it won't go bad," said Bourdon, whose been baking for 40 years. "It will keep forever. I've had some that was six months old."

Then it's French toast time. Just slice it up, he said, throw it in the pan with some butter or in the toaster and it's as good as fresh.

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Head baker Thomas Lampiasi said about 800 are made between December and January. Between that and a holiday Stollen bread, that's about 2,000 treats. The Panettone is $15 for one or $25 for two. It's a labor of love.

"You're not gonna get rich on this making it three or four weeks a year," Bourdon said of what is ultimately a 20-hour process with all that rising and resting.

Credit goes to a graduate of the San Francisco Baking Institute who came to work for Bourdon. The young baker told Bourdon that an Institute recipe had rehabilitated the lost soul of Panettone. Bourdon objected, but tried it anyway.

"I was so impressed," he said. "I never thought it could be so good."

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But he's had to convince people. In came an Italian woman one day, suspicious as ever.

"Over my dead body," she said when Bourdon offered her a taste.

He said he recalled possibly offering her money or getting down on his knees just so she would taste it. When she did, "her face lit up and she bought two — one for her mother."

"They shoved it down her throat as a child," he said, explaining the revulsion. "How could something so good turn so bad?"

Yeast — that's what happened. And too much fussing with ingredients and too much sugar, he added. Bourdon said the fat/sugar balance combined with sourdough makes it easy to digest.

It's also easy to decimate, he warned.

"If you're alone, you'll eat the whole thing."

Heather Bellow can be reached at 413-329-6871 or on Twitter @BE_hbellow


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