For many Peruvians, there is no Christmas without panetón (this is the local Spanish pronunciation of panettone, a northern Italian sweet bread studded with dried and candied fruit). In Peru, it also includes candied papaya. The reason why this Italian baked good ended up so firmly embedded in Peruvian culture is the same reason why we ended up with dishes like tallarines verdes and sopa seca. Peru is home to a significant Italian immigrant population, which has greatly influenced the local cuisine, particularly around Christmas.
In my family, we often varied what we had for dinner on Christmas Eve, and I grew up not really knowing what a traditional Peruvian Christmas looked like. My dad, who always tried to infuse every occasion with some Peruvian flavor, fell in love with American-style roast beef and ended up making that every Dec. 24. He never faltered, however, from serving the most traditional Peruvian Christmas element for dessert: panetón and hot chocolate. It was easy to include panetón on the Christmas Eve table as it’s something you buy rather than make yourself. Considering that my dad never really learned to cook Peruvian food, this was a saving grace.
Peruvian hot chocolate is distinctive, but probably not as bold as Mexican hot chocolate. Delicately flavored with vanilla, cinnamon, and cloves, it’s made with bars of drinking chocolate and evaporated milk, the milk of choice in Peru. My dad never really learned to properly make it. He was too impatient to wait for chocolate to slowly melt into simmering milk. Instead, he would put the chocolate in a blender with milk and whir it until it looked homogenous. We ignored the fact that there were little chunks of bitter unsweetened chocolate in each cup.
Growing up, my aunt and uncle would sometimes come to visit us in December for at least a month. Since Peru is south of the equator, Christmas time coincided with my little cousin’s summer vacation, and my relatives would take advantage of this to come to Florida to enjoy the beaches and max out their credit cards at the many outlet malls. The years when we would celebrate Noche Buena (Christmas Eve) with our extended family, my aunt would take over the preparation of the hot chocolate. She took her time to make it right, and she always added a few tablespoons of butter to the pot to make it richer.
When compared to other Peruvian desserts, many of which are intensely sweet and very moist, I always considered panetón to be pretty bland and dry in comparison. It always seemed odd to me to celebrate such a joyous occasion with something so demure, when there are plenty of other options in the Peruvian sweets canon: desserts that are dripping in perfumed syrups or layered with custards, caramels, and jams and topped with fluffy meringue. But panetón was the only cultural touchstone I had during the holidays, so it always remained on the table (even though I sometimes had to force myself to eat a piece).
One year, I had leftover panetón and hot chocolate and decided to combine them to make a bread pudding. It didn’t come out as I had expected, but it encouraged me to keep experimenting. I finally came up with a winning recipe that uses a mixture of condensed milk and evaporated milk, which form the base of a traditional Latin American flan. I flavored the custard base with cocoa powder, cloves, cinnamon, and vanilla and let pieces of panetón soak up the rich flavors overnight before sliding the baking dish in the oven. To make it even more decadent, I drizzle each serving with warm chocolate ganache spiked with pisco.
Nowadays, especially when prepared like this, I can’t wait to have panetón on Christmas Eve.
Panetón & Hot Chocolate Bread Pudding
Prep time: 8 minutes
Cook time: 1 hour
Serves: 6 to 8
Room-temperature butter, for greasing casserole dish
1 Latin American panettone (see Author Notes)
6 large eggs
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 (14-ounce) cans sweetened condensed milk
2 (12-ounce) cans evaporated milk
3/4 cup heavy cream
1 cup good-quality dark chocolate, chopped
1/4 cup Peruvian pisco or liquor of your choice
1. The night before you plan to bake the bread pudding, butter a 12x10-inch casserole dish and set aside.
2. Unwrap the panettone and remove any paper. Cut the panettone into 1-inch pieces and scatter them evenly in the casserole dish. Be careful not to press the panettone too much, or it will not absorb the custard batter.
3. In a large bowl, whisk the eggs, cocoa powder, cinnamon, cloves, and vanilla extract together until smooth. Make sure to break apart any lumps of cocoa powder.
4. Add the condensed milk to the egg mixture and whisk to incorporate. Now add the evaporated milk and whisk to combine.
5. Pour the custard mixture evenly over the panettone. Cover with foil and place in the refrigerator. Leave overnight or up to 24 hours.
6. When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 325°F. Place the casserole dish on the center rack and bake for 30 minutes. Rotate the casserole dish and bake for an additional 20 to 30 minutes or until a knife inserted into the middle of the bread pudding comes out clean. Serve warm with chocolate sauce.
1. Heat the heavy cream in a saucepan over medium heat until it comes to a simmer. Immediately remove the saucepan from the heat and add the chopped chocolate.
2. Use a rubber spatula to vigorously stir the chocolate into the hot milk until mixture is smooth. Add the pisco or liquor and stir to combine. Spoon over portions of bread pudding as you serve.