Panettone, the tall cake-like bread stuffed with dried raisins and candied orange and lemon peel, is not only Italy's favourite Christmas dessert - it comes with a history as colourful as a fairy tale.
The usually high dome-shaped cake (it can also come flat) is a hot end-of-year item in the country. Last Christmas, Italians purchased 68 million panettoni to eat or to offer, a four percent increase over 2001. This year, the Italian Dessert-Makers Organisation (AIDI) expects to see a similar boost in sales.
The average yearly consumption by Italy's 57 million people is estimated at two-and-a-half panettoni (2.5 kilogrammes, or 5.5 pounds) per family, and its popularity is also growing beyond the Italian border, with seven to 10 percent of panettoni produced now exported to France, Germany, the United States, Canada, Britain and Spain.
In Italy, the panettone comes with a rich and often varied history, but one that invariably states that its birthplace is in Milan.
The most popular of the stories about its origins is a romantic tale that begins with a "Once upon a time."
So it was that a Milanese nobleman and falconer, Ughetto degli Atellani, fell in love with Adalgisa, the daughter of a poor baker named Toni. To win her over, the nobleman disguised himself as a baker and invented a rich bread in which he added to the flour and yeast, butter, eggs, dried raisins and candied lemon and orange peel.
The duke of Milan, Ludovico il Moro Sforza (1452-1508), agreed to the marriage, which was held in the presence of Leonardo da Vinci, and encouraged the launch of the new cake-like bread: Pan del Ton (or Toni's bread).
But according to another tale, the panettone though invented in the court of the Sforzas, was spawned in entirely different circumstances.
The bread of Toni?
It was Christmas and the court cook had no dessert to offer. So the guests were given a sweet bread baked by a mere kitchen boy, called Toni, which won general praise. Rather than steal the praise for himself, the cook congratulated his assistant and named it after him.
Other historians claim to have found references to "pan del ton" as far back as the 1300s. In those days some families made a thick bread with wheat flour called "pan del ton", which meant "luxury bread" in Milanese dialect.
Whatever its origins, it was only in 1919, just after the end of World War I, that panettone became widely known thanks to a young Milanese baker, Angelo Motta, who gave his name to one of Italy's now best-known brands.
It was also Motta who revolutionised the traditional panettone by giving it its tall domed shape by making the dough rise three times, or almost 20 hours, before cooking, which is what makes it so light.
The recipe was adapted shortly after by another baker, Gioacchino Alemagna, who also gave his name to a popular brand that still exists today. The stiff competition between the two that then ensued led to industrial production of the cake-like bread.
So by the end of World War II, panettone was cheap enough for anyone and soon became the country's leading Christmas sweet.
Paradoxically, it is more popular today in central and southern Italy, which accounts for 55 percent of sales, than in the Milan region in the north, with 45 percent of sales.
Manufacturers have tried over and over to offer new and better types by launching panettoni stuffed with chocolate chips, cream or even lemon liqueur, or limoncello. but the traditional recipe remains the favourite, with 50 million sold for Christmas in 2002.