Maria Coassin used to wake to the sounds of bakers pounding dough, her childhood bedroom situated just above her family’s 200-year-old bakery, Panificio Coassin in Maniago, Italy. Now, and every December, she’s the one mixing, weighing, rolling and baking the dough that becomes her panettone—although she’s no longer in that tiny village in Italy’s northeastern corner, she’s in downtown Seattle.
Just a block away from bustling Pike Street Market sits Gelatiamo, Coassin’s gleaming gelato shop with its cases full of rich gelato, crunchy biscotti and eye-popping cakes and cookies. Items are served the Italian way; you’re meant to order and find a table. Gelato arrives in gleaming steel bowls, espresso in a proper cup and cookies on plates, inviting you to linger over treats and good conversation.
A few dozen steps down an almost hidden staircase takes you to the bowels of the building and Coassin’s kitchen, bustling with worker bees mixing gelato, baking macaroons, boxing up wholesale orders and—most importantly this time of year—watching what Coassin calls her “babies.”
She pats the two tubs of dough affectionately. “Yes, these are my children,” she says with a smile. Straining against the lids is wet, sticky dough that’s on its third rise out of five, one batch of dozens that will create roughly 100 of the 1,200 loaves of panettone that Coassin will bake between Thanksgiving and the New Year.
Like fruitcake, panettone is one of those baked goods that arrives each holiday season, often for sale in grocery stores and retail shops like Cost Plus World Market and TJ Maxx and packed in boxes with a picture of what looks like a fruit-studded loaf. Italian fruitcake, right?
“To compare panettone to fruitcake would be a big mistake,” says Coassin. Her eyes light up as she begins to tell the tale of the holiday bread.
“It comes from Milan, and that’s the only thing Italy agrees upon.”
When it comes to the origin of panettone there are many legends, but the one Coassin prefers is where a poor young baker’s apprentice named Toni wanted to impress a nobleman’s daughter, so he baked this fanciful loaf filled with dried fruit and citrus to impress the nobleman and hopefully win his daughter’s hand.
The bread was so rich and delicious, it won them over and the bread became known as pan del toni, or “bread of Toni” and eventually shortened to what we know now as panettone and eaten all over the world.
Panettone has always been a part of Coassin’s life; the recipe she uses is the same one created in her family’s bakery, taught to her by her father Silvio nearly 20 years ago when she first opened Gelatiamo in 1996.
Gelato had not yet won the hearts of Americans in the mid-90s, and Coassin talks about the issues she had when she opened; “people didn’t know what gelato was, they thought it was gelatin or cream cheese.”
When the weather turned gray and cold she realized there was no way she was going to make it to the next summer as a business selling just gelato in rainy, dreary Seattle. Her father booked a flight, landed in the city with just one small bag and came directly to Gelatiamo. He went to the washroom, cleaned his face, changed his clothes and got to work teaching Coassin how to make panettone, starting the tradition that has carried on to today.