Panettone is a yeasted brioche bread, flavored with citrus, studded with dried fruits and nuts, and baked in a decorative round paper mold. Italian immigrants to South America brought this special cake with them, and it has become a beloved part of the Christmas celebration throughout Latin America, traditionally enjoyed with hot chocolate on Christmas eve.
There are quite a few variations in the recipe from country to country. In most places, panettone is known as panetón (same pronunciation, Spanish spelling), although the same bread is also called simply "pan dulce" (sweet bread). In Chile the preferred Christmas fruitcake is called pan de pascua, and is more closely related to German stollen than Italian panettone.
Panettones are tall cakes with a domed top, and they are baked in beautiful paper pans with gold decorations. They are made from yeasted brioche-like dough, and the traditional method of preparing the dough includes several days of fermentation to develop the flavor. In Italy there is a special flavoring used in panettone called "fiori de sicila" (flowers of Sicily) that has distinctive citrus and jasmine flavors.
Most people purchase the widely available commercially prepared panettones, but homemade ones are truly special. During the Christmas season, grocery stores are piled high with fancy boxed panettones. Some are prepared by South American companies, and some are imported from Italy. Everyone gives them to their friends and colleagues. In the last few days before Christmas, the doormen at fancy apartment buildings can be seen sitting in their chairs, surrounded by the multiple panettone boxes they have received as gifts. Unlike North American fruitcakes, which are famous for being "regifted", panettones are actually eaten and enjoyed!
Panettone is not difficult to prepare. You can order the fancy paper molds online, or simply bake them in a coffee can. I sometimes like to make small muffin-size versions. The dough needs to rise overnight in the refrigerator, so plan ahead. Panettone is delicious plain, but it is even more wonderful toasted with butter, and french toast made with panettone is amazing. If there is any leftover, panettone is excellent for bread pudding as well.