"Hi. You've reached Hof Kelsten.
If you are calling regarding panettone, please leave a detailed message and we will gladly take your order. For any other inquiries, please call back during our regular business hours."
When you call Montreal's Hof Kelsten bakery outside of operating hours, this is the pre-recorded message you will hear.
Owned by Jeffrey Finkelstein, the bakery has managed to create a renewed interest in one of the most old-school and misunderstood holiday treats in existence: the panettone.
We've all seen the huge panettone boxes with funky European fonts and colors hanging from the ceilings of Italian restaurants, or quietly re-gifted at Christmas. And while panettone is often relegated to the dessert table alongside other Christmas relics like marzipan and fruit cake, at Hof Kelsten, it's front and center.
Finkelstein's love affair with the Italian loaf goes back to his formative years working in some of the world's most prestigious Michelin-starred kitchens. "At el Bulli, I was in pastry and I had been working for their old head chef, Oriol Balaguer, who also owned a very high-end pastry shop and distribution. One of his specialties was panettone, which he had learned from a panettone master in Italy."
So, why, of all the breads and cakes that a master baker can create, did the budding el Bulli pastryman turn his intense gaze to a Christmas cake? Finkelstein's attraction to panettone came down to the incredible level of technique required to perfect the much-maligned cake.
"When I worked with Oriol, the panettone was known for being a hard thing to do and I said, 'That's what I want to learn how to do.' This was the thing that the chef came in specially to do. Oriol was in charge of two kitchens but when it was panettone time, it was all him. I wanted to learn from him. It almost gave me seniority over the chef de cuisine because it was just me or Oriol taking them out of the oven. It was super cool and super stressful."
Eventually, Finkelstein would return to his native city armed with a coveted recipe and a secret biological weapon. "When I came back home, I took some of the yeast from Spain, and I started my bakery with that sourdough," he says. "Now, that yeast fuels our bakery. It's a few hundred generations old by now because we refresh it every day, and always take a piece from the previous batch."
But panettone is an inherently mysterious loaf. It's notoriously tricky to master and secrets are closely guarded; even if you were to steal Finkelstein's recipe book, you'd be hard-pressed to replicate the final product.
"The recipe we have written down is not necessarily the recipe that we do. You can never be too careful. Some of the secrets are passed down, but, at the same time, you don't want to copy the chef that you learned from either. I really worked on having my own recipe."
Yet, for all of his worldliness, there is also something innately Montreal about Finkelstein's panettone and Hof Kelsten. "Montreal is such a melting pot. We make ciabattas and baguettes here, too. We're a Jewish bakery-ish. When you grow up in Montreal you're exposed to everything and there is a huge Italian influence here."
Creating authentic panettone for a Canadian market is not without challenges. "The North American palette is very different from the European one. A lot of people are afraid of these confited fruit, so we stick mostly to lemon and orange because it's more normal here.
"Before I travelled, my only experience with panettone was these crazy boxes hanging at Italian restaurants in Montreal. It was like every Italian restaurant needed to have these crazy boxes with red and green writing hanging from the ceiling, and as a kid you're like, 'Is that really cake inside? Are they empty? So it was very foreign to me, but familiar too."
And the funk is not limited to packaging. Anyone who's tasted panettone as a child knows that it's a bread with distinctive flavor, and a far cry from the insulin-depleting sweetness of North American breads and cakes. That funkiness comes from fermentation—the nice word for rotting.
"The long fermentation gives the bread a sourdough quality and that's where the funkiness comes from. You're trying to balance the fat from the egg yolks and butter, the sweet from the sugar and confited fruit, and the acid from the bread. Plus, it's a natural process, because the yeast produces itself. There's such a balancing act with the flavors. The whole process from start to finish is about 72 hours."
"There are so many intricate steps and stages to get it perfect. Time and temperature are two things which are very important to this process. You're also working with fermentation, fat, and sugar content. The whole point is to bring out this natural acidity because it has to keep for a long time.
But Finkelstein doesn't guard his secrets too closely either, and he regularly invites local chefs to help out and learn what they can from the 72-hour procedure. "That's a special Montreal thing. I get friends from other restaurants to help out when I make it. For example, Mike Forgione from Impasto came one night."
For Michele Forgione, executive chef and co-owner of Impasto, GEMA, and Chez Tousignant in Montreal's Little Italy, Finkelstein's panettone is without equal, in Montreal, at least. "I've made panettone, I've been to Italy ten times and worked there," Forgione says. "It's the best in the city. So I bring one—usually one of Jeff's—wherever I go when I visit people during the holidays. It takes so much time to make just one panettone that it's something sacred and traditional. It's a tradition you see all over Italy."
And for all of the complexity required to make panettone, it's fundamentally about something more simple and more important than skill. "Italian holidays are about food and drinking and fun and family and sharing," Forgione emphasizes. "It's a holiday bread. You only eat it during the holidays when you let yourself go—when you're going to eat and drink a bit more."
Maybe we should be hanging them from the ceilings of restaurants.