Welcome to the April edition of Cucina Conversations! We’re sharing our recipes a little early this month so you can see what we have cooked and baked for our upcoming Easter celebrations. Like Christmas, Easter is one of my favorite holidays of the year for both its religious significance and the food traditions. I am thoroughly enjoying researching and learning the recipes of my northern Italian heritage, so for this month’s post I’m sharing a recipe for focaccia veneta, a yeasted sweet bread typical to the region of the Veneto. In the Venetian dialect, this bread is known as fugassa or fugassin. This is a new-to-me recipe as it was something I never ate growing up, although it is very similar to the pizza di pasqua my maternal nonna made every year for Easter breakfast, a specialty of the neighboring regions of Umbria and Lazio.
The origins of focaccia veneta are mostly based in legend, the most widely known story being that focaccia veneta was invented by a baker from the city of Treviso who enriched his bread dough with eggs, butter, and honey to obtain a sweet and soft bread that he gifted to his customers for Easter. Focaccia veneta was also once traditionally given as an engagement gift to the bride-to-be’s family with the engagement ring hidden inside. Whether legend or antiquated tradition, these two stories are reflective of the spirit of giving that is significant at Easter time, where many of Italy’s recipes require hours, and sometimes several days to make before being enjoyed and shared with family and friends on Easter Sunday.
Italy’s Easter breads, cakes, and pies are both savory and sweet and vary in flavorings, but one similarity they all share is the addition of eggs either to the dough or the filling. Eggs feature prominently in many of Italy’s Easter recipes for several reasons. With the arrival of spring coinciding with the solemn and celebratory religious rites of Easter, the egg became a perfect symbol of rebirth, fertility, and renewal. When Christianity became the state religion of Italy in the fourth century, the faithful exchanged eggs at Easter to mark their faith and their belief in Christ’s resurrection. In these early Christian times, eggs (in addition to meat and other animal-derived ingredients) were forbidden from being consumed during the lean forty days of Lent. By the time Easter arrived, farmers who raised chickens had an abundance of eggs to use and eat, and from there, Italy’s beautiful egg-enriched Easter recipes were born.
The two-day process that is required to make a focaccia veneta may lead you to believe that this is a complicated bread, but it is the opposite. I am still a novice bread baker and I found this recipe both easy and delightful to prepare. The recipe is broken down into manageable steps, each of which are as simple as mixing the same set of ingredients together and watching the stand mixer do most of the work. The ingredients are basic and simple, the most valuable of which will be patience and time as the bread requires a total of five impasti (rises). This is because the dough is enriched with eggs and butter, heavy ingredients which are added incrementally. Four of the five rises happen on the first day, with the fourth rise stretching into the second day as it lasts fifteen hours in the refrigerator. The fifth and final rise lasts two hours before the bread can finally be baked for a mere thirty minutes, a surprisingly short amount of time and a true reward for your patience. What emerges from your oven will be a golden, sugar-crunchy, domed bread that will perfume not just your kitchen but your whole house. The true test of patience will be waiting to cut into it until Easter morning as tradition dictates.
Our recipes this month are both savory and sweet, as well as a beautiful reflection of Italy’s traditional Easter fare. Francesca baked a torta pasqualina, a savory double-crust pie filled with a mixture of spinach, cheese, and eggs; Carmen made taralli all’uovo, a traditional cookie from the south-eastern region of Puglia; Daniela is sharing torta coi bischeri, a pie with a chocolate and rice filling from the Tuscan coastal town of Versilia; Marialuisa baked a pitta chijna, a rustic, savory pie filled with Calabrian sausage, cheese, and eggs; and Lisa has shared a beautiful crescia pasqualina, a savory cheese bread. Enjoy our recipes!
Buona Pasqua a tutti!
Adapted from Giallo Zafferano
Special equipment: stand mixer with dough hook; kitchen scale; 7-inch (18 cm) round paper panettone baking mold
Wash the stand mixer work bowl, measuring implements, utensils, and bowl used for rising the dough in between each rise to keep all the implements properly sanitized and to ensure accurate measuring at each step of the process.
250 grams (1¾ cups + 2 Tablespoons) bread flour
250 grams (1½ cups + 1 Tablespoon) “Tipo 00” flour
100 grams (½ cup) granulated sugar, divided
90 ml (6 Tablespoons) whole milk
4 grams (1¼ teaspoons) active dry yeast
3 large eggs, at room temperature
100 grams (7 Tablespoons) unsalted butter at room temperature, divided
10 grams (1½ teaspoons) fine sea salt
10 ml (1 Tablespoons) clear rum or Grand Marnier
1 vanilla pod, scraped of caviar
Zest of 1 orange (preferably organic)
Zest of 1 lemon (preferably organic)
1 egg white (from 1 large egg)
20 grams (3 Tablespoons) powdered sugar
Coarse sugar crystals
Preparation of flour mix + first rise
Sift both flours into a large bowl and whisk to combine thoroughly. Set aside.
To prepare the sponge: Spoon out 50 grams (¼ cup + 2 Tablespoons) of the flour mix into another mixing bowl and add 20 grams (1½ Tablespoons) of the sugar, all of the yeast, and whisk to combine. Add in all of the milk, pouring it into the dry ingredients in a steady stream, while mixing with a whisk until the batter is smooth and free of lumps. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and place it in the oven (turned off) with the oven light turned on. Let the sponge rise for 1 hour until is has doubled in volume and bubbles have formed on the surface. The sponge will be wet and slightly sticky when finished rising.
Put 150 grams (1 cup + 1 Tablespoon) of the flour mix and 20 grams (1½ Tablespoons) of sugar into the work bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook. Add in the sponge and 1 egg, lightly beaten. Mix the dough on medium speed for 2-3 minutes, and then add in 30 grams (2 Tablespoons) of butter in two additions, waiting for the butter to incorporate completely after each addition. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as necessary using a rubber spatula. As you add the butter, the dough will become shiny and smooth and may not wrap readily around the dough hook. Use your hands to gather it into the center of the work bowl to allow the dough to catch onto the dough hook. Continue mixing the dough on medium speed for another 6-7 minutes until all the ingredients are fully incorporated and the dough is smooth. Transfer the dough to a work surface and shape it into a ball. Place the dough in a bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Return the bowl to the oven (turned off) with the oven light turned on, and let the dough rise for 4 hours until it is doubled in volume.
Put 100 grams (¾ cups) of the flour mix and 20 grams (1½ Tablespoons) of sugar into the work bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook. Add in the risen dough and 1 egg, lightly beaten. Mix the dough on medium speed for 2-3 minutes, and then add in 30 grams (2 Tablespoons) of butter in small amounts, waiting for the butter to incorporate completely after each addition. Continue mixing the dough on medium speed for another 3-5 minutes until all the ingredients are fully incorporated and the dough is smooth. Transfer the dough to a work surface and fold the dough over itself a few times before shaping it into a ball. The dough will be slightly sticky, but it will smooth out as you knead it. Place the dough in a bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Return the bowl to the oven (turned off) with the oven light turned on, and let the dough rise for 1 hour, until it is doubled in volume.
Put 200 grams (1½ cups) of the flour mix, 40 grams (3 Tablespoons) of sugar into the work bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook. Add in the risen dough, and 1 egg, lightly beaten. Mix the dough on medium speed for 2-3 minutes. Stop the mixer and add in the liquor, letting it absorb into the dough for about 1 minute. In the meantime, zest the orange and the lemon. Add the zests, salt, and the vanilla bean caviar to the dough and mix on medium speed to incorporate the ingredients. Add in the remaining 40 grams (3 Tablespoons) of butter in small amounts, waiting for the butter to incorporate completely after each addition. Transfer the dough to a work surface and fold the dough over itself a few times before shaping into a ball. Place the dough in a bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Place the bowl in the refrigerator to let it rise for 15 hours.
Baking the Focaccia Veneta
Remove the dough from the refrigerator and let it stand at room temperature for 2 hours.
Transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface and fold the dough over itself a few times before shaping it into a ball. Place the ball of dough in the paper panettone mold. Return the dough to the oven (turned off) with the oven light turned on, and let the dough rise for 2 hours until the dough has risen almost to the top of the mold. Remove the dough from the oven and let it stand at room temperature for 5-10 minutes so the surface of the focaccia dries out slightly (this will allow a crisp crust to form when it bakes).
Preheat the oven to 350° F (180°C).
To make the glaze: Place the egg whites and powdered sugar in the work bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Whip the ingredients until frothy but not firm. Set aside.
Using a sharp knife or baker’s blade, cut a cross on the surface of the focaccia. Use a pastry brush to cover the surface of the focaccia with the egg white-sugar mixture. Cover the surface generously with the pearl sugar crystals.
Bake the focaccia uncovered for 30 minutes or until the top is a deep golden brown. Insert a cake tester into the center of the focaccia to test for doneness.. If the cake tester comes out clean in several areas, the focaccia is finished baking. If the cake tester does not come out clean, then cover the focaccia with aluminum foil and bake for an additional 5-10 minutes or until the cake tester comes out clean. Remove the focaccia from the oven and place it on a cooling rack to cool completely. Peel away the paper mold carefully and place the focaccia on a platter. Cut into wedges and serve.
Storage: Store the focaccia at room temperature on a platter covered with plastic wrap or on a covered cake plate. Eat within 2-3 days.