Finish that fine holiday meal with panettone packaged in frothy and delightfully boozy Zabaglione.

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MOST PEOPLE picture piles of glistening gelato and knockout displays of colorful cookies and cakes when they think of Gelatiamo, the popular gelato and pastry shop in downtown Seattle.

But this time of year, co-owner and founder Maria Coassin adds another Italian specialty to her already impressive lineup: panettone (pan-eh-TONE-ay).

Panettone is “the traditional Italian sweet bread to celebrate the holiday season, made of fresh eggs, creamy butter, plump raisins and candied lemon and orange peel,” Coassin explains.

Her family has been baking panettone at their gelateria and pasticceria in northern Italy since the 1800s. The basic ingredients and recipe haven’t changed much through six generations.

“As soon as I start making panettone, I know the holiday season has arrived,” Coassin says. “I learned it from my dad, and my dad from his dad, and his dad from his dad. It’s a labor of love, and I love doing it!”

Coassin, a fast-talking, stylish woman who cooks in high heels, opened Gelatiamo in 1996 at the corner of “Third and Hell” (Union Street) and introduced fresh panettone to Seattle that very first Christmas. During those early years, her father, who often visited from Italy, baked the sweet bread without benefit of a proofing machine or even a “real” oven, adapting his Old World recipe to our region’s flour and water.

Once customers sampled the fresh panettone, they clamored for more. The rest, as they say, is history.

Other pastry shops about town produce panettone, including Grand Central, Macrina and Columbia City bakeries. Chefshop.com offers an impressive variety of flavors such as Sorrento lemon, chocolate-hazelnut and chocolate panettone covered in chocolate pieces, all imported from small, artisan bakers in Italy.

But Coassin brings almost fanatical fervor to her panettone prep, calling the dome-topped loaves her “babies” and coddling them as obsessively as if they really were.

“Making panettone is not a simple baking process,” Coassin says. “The baker must be patient and allow nature to work its magic. The dough is left to rise five times, and each time more ingredients are added; 27 hours later, the bread finally finds its way into the oven.”

Panettone’s foundation is a yeast-raised dough similar to a light, airy brioche or challah. While most recipes call for one or two rises, Coassin’s lengthy process results in loaves so fine of crumb that they must cool hanging upside down so they don’t collapse under their own weight.

Coassin and crew make all of their panettone and other goodies from mostly locally sourced ingredients (with select imported-from-Europe necessities) in the subterranean bakeshop down the winding staircase below Gelatiamo.

Holiday baking begins the week of Thanksgiving in order to have a good supply of panettone for Black Friday shoppers. During this intense five-week period, Coassin puts in 90-hour weeks that don’t stop until two days before Christmas.

Somehow, she says, the hard work and long hours make her feel closer to her family across the miles, because they’re also busy baking panettone. And after it’s all over, she “hand-delivers a few of my panettone to my brothers in Italy when I go back to enjoy some time with loved ones.”

You can enjoy panettone as a holiday dessert with a glass of spumante, or toasted for breakfast along with a slather of butter or mascarpone and a strong shot of espresso. It’s also a good base for bread pudding or French toast.

Pairing Coassin’s fresh panettone with delightfully boozy Zabaglione — a creamy custard sauce flavored with Marsala — is a very sweet holiday treat, too.

Braiden Rex-Johnson is a Seattle-based cookbook author, food and wine columnist and blogger. Visit her online at www.WithBraiden.com. Alan Berner is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

Salsa di Zabajone con Panettone

(Zabaglione Sauce with Panettone)

Serves 6

Marsala, an Italian fortified wine similar to port, has a rich flavor that complements the raisins and candied fruit in the panettone.

4 large egg yolks

5 tablespoons granulated sugar

4 ounces (1/2 cup) best-quality sweet Marsala wine

Six 1/4-inch slices from a loaf of panettone

Champagne grapes or seasonal fruit, for garnish

1. Prepare an ice bath by placing ice cubes and cold water in a large bowl.

2. Bring water to a simmer in the bottom part of a double boiler.

3. Away from the heat, whisk the egg yolks and the sugar in the top part of the double boiler until frothy. Add the Marsala and continue whisking until combined.

4. Place the top of the double boiler over the simmering (not boiling!) water. Do not let the bottom of the pan touch the water, or the egg mixture could scramble or separate. Whisk constantly, incorporating as much air as possible, until the mixture becomes thick and pale yellow, doubles in volume and mounds softly; 8 to 10 minutes. During cooking, if the mixture begins to cook too quickly, remove the double boiler from the water, whisk vigorously to cool, then return to the heat. Repeat as needed.

5. Once the egg mixture has doubled in volume, immediately place the top pan over the ice bath, whisking the sauce constantly until it cools completely. Transfer to a glass measuring cup or nonreactive bowl, cover and refrigerate.

6. Ten to 15 minutes before serving, remove the sauce from the refrigerator. Divide the sauce among six dessert plates, arrange a slice of panettone over the sauce and garnish with the grapes.

Cook’s hint: If a double boiler is unavailable, this recipe can be prepared in a stainless-steel bowl placed over a saucepan of simmering water.

— Recipe courtesy of Maria Coassin/Gelatiamo