It wouldn’t be Christmas in my house without panettone. While I spend my December singing along to the merriest carols, trimming the tree, and baking cookies, it isn’t until I take my first bite of sweet, fluffy panettone that I know Christmas has truly arrived. Panettone is a delicious Italian yeast bread, typically studded with raisins and candied fruits such as citron or orange peel. It’s wonderful sliced and served on its own for breakfast or dessert, but its texture and flavor also makes it well suited to French toast. Warm and inviting, my recipe for Baked Panettone French Toast, served with a drizzle of orange-infused maple butter, is a delicious way to kick off your Christmas Day celebrations.
For many families, Christmas morning is an especially busy and exciting time, particularly when children are celebrating the magic of Santa having visited during the night. What’s great about making baked French toast (as opposed to individually-griddled slices) is that it can be prepped before going to bed on Christmas Eve and baked the next morning. The creamy, cinnamon-scented custard will soak into the panettone slices, creating a decadent French toast with a texture reminiscent of bread pudding. When you wake up, just pop it in the oven, warm the maple butter, and breakfast is served. The aroma of the French toast as it bakes is a wonderful way to wake up your Christmas morning guests, or set a cozy stage for opening gifts under the tree.
Just about any brand of panettone can be used to make this French toast recipe (though, I confess, I’ve never tried it with the cream-filled varieties). The panettone photographed here is my favorite from Pasticceria Scarpato in Verona, Italy (imported by Williams-Sonoma). Scarpato’s panettone has a rich vanilla flavor and a light, brioche-like texture. In a special twist, this panettone skips the citron in favor of chunks of marrons glacés (candied chestnuts). The soft, glazed chestnuts lend a beautiful flavor and elegance to the bread that my family looks forward to year after year. Have fun experimenting with the brands of panettone your family enjoys best for this recipe to create a new tradition from an old favorite.
The warm, orange-infused maple butter I serve with this French toast is incredibly easy to make (less than 5 minutes on the stove) and adds a nice brightness against the rich, custard-soaked panettone. If you don’t enjoy orange, or if the panettone you’re using has prominent citrus flavor on its own, just omit the zest for an equally delicious warm maple butter for drizzling. (Adding a splash of Grand Marnier to the syrup for the adults never hurt, either!) As we gather around the table with family and friends this week, I wish you all of the peace, love, and joy of the season, on Christmas Day and always.
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- 2 cups whole milk or half and half
- 6 large eggs
- 2 tablespoons light brown sugar, lightly packed*
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 2 pound panettone, quartered and cut into 10, 1-inch slices (you might not use the entire loaf), dark crusts removed
- 1/2 cup sliced almonds, optional
- 1/2 cup pure maple syrup
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter, cut into pieces
- 1 teaspoon orange zest
- Butter a 13x9x2 baking dish (don't be shy, you don't want the French toast to stick). Arrange panettone slices in the dish, overlapping as needed to fit. In a large bowl, whisk together half and half, eggs, brown sugar, vanilla extract, salt, and cinnamon. Pour egg mixture over the panettone slices, gently pressing to absorb. Cover baking dish with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least two hours, or up to overnight (8 hours).
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F with rack in middle position. Sprinkle casserole with almond slices, if using. Spray a piece of foil with cooking spray and cover the baking dish. Place on a baking sheet and bake for 25 minutes. Uncover baking dish and continue baking 15-20 minutes, until center is hot and French toast is puffed. Let stand 5 minutes before sprinkling with powdered sugar and serving with a drizzle of Orange Maple Butter.
- Warm maple syrup in a small saucepan. Remove from heat and whisk in orange zest and butter.** Keep warm until ready to serve.
**For an optional twist for the adults, stir 1-2 teaspoons Grand Marnier into the warm Orange Maple Butter.