With Easter approaching, I thought it would be appropriate to share with you the recipe for a traditional Easter bread that I grew up eating: Pizza di Pasqua.
Despite it's name, this Easter bread is nothing like the Neopolitan version of pizza we are familiar with. The only similarities between the two dough recipes are that they both use yeast, flour and salt. Pizza di Pasqua, however, has additional ingredients added to it, and once the dough has risen in its baking vessel, it is baked off immediately, resulting in a tall, domed, circular-shaped bread, similar to the traditional Italian Christmas bread, panettone.
Pizza di Pasqua is traditional to the central regions of Umbria, Abruzzo, Molise, Le Marche and Lazio and goes by several different names throughout these regions: Torta di Pasqua, Crescia di Pasqua and Pizza di Pasqua. There are also two versions: a savory version made with Pecorino Romano and Parmigiano Reggiano cheeses, and a sweet version made with sugar, cinnamon, lemon zest and two types of liquors. In my family, we always ate the sweet version of this delicious Easter specialty.
My maternal grandmother, "Nonna" Liliana, would make pizza di Pasqua every year. Her sisters, my great-aunts, would all do the same. And on Easter day, when we called Italy to wish each other a happy Easter, my grandmother and her sisters would inevitably all ask each other how their pizze (because they made several) turned out. It's not an easy type of bread to make, so the discussion of how high their pizze rose and what kind of crumb it produced was always a hot topic on the Easter day overseas call. I always loved hearing about it because they discussed it with such seriousness and detail: Did they let it rise long enough? Was the room warm enough to yield a good rise? Did they over/under bake it? It was always fun to hear the play-by-play of how my Nonna's and great-aunt's pizze turned out. Although the discussion was identical every year, I never grew tired of listening to my grandmother talk to her sisters about it.
I have never made pizza di Pasqua before, but this year, I decided that I was going to try making it. But first, I had to do a little research. Thank God for the Internet! I found a treasure trove of images, recipes and articles thanks to Google. Double Thank God that I can speak and read Italian because the majority of recipes and articles I found were written in Italian. I came across several variations of the sweet pizza di Pasqua, and after reading through several recipes online, I decided to call my great-aunt, "Zia" Giovanna. She is my Nonna Liliana's only other sister who also emigrated to the States, and she still lives in Washington, DC. I told her how I wanted to try making pizze di Pasqua this year, and that I wanted to use the same recipe used in our family. I had a rough idea of the ingredients used in my family's version, but I wanted to make sure I got the exact recipe. She instructed me to start writing as she dictated the recipe to me over the phone. This proved to be comical because she didn't exactly give me the most accurate measurements ("a spoonful of this, a pinch of that, a small glassful of this"). I think I ran into the kitchen about half a dozen times to look at my measuring cups and spoons so I could ask my aunt to give me a rough estimate of quantities for certain ingredients. Additionally, our conversation was largely in Italian, so as I listened and spoke to her in Italian, I wrote down the recipe in English, all while trying to convert fuzzy measurements into a somewhat accurate recipe I could follow. I never got the exact quantity for the flour, though. When I asked her how much to use, she said it "depends" and that I have to just keep adding it until a dough forms. I was on my own with figuring out that measurement. As for the rest of the ingredients, it looked like I had a workable recipe in my hands, ready to attempt for the first time by myself.
With my research complete, I now had to go find the baking pans in which to bake my pizze. Not. Easy. I asked my Zia Giovanna what kind of baking pans I needed, and she said that since pizza di Pasqua is tall and circular in shape, I had to find baking pans that were deep and round, and they could be metal, glass or ceramic. It was too late to order anything online, so I had to go shop for them. Sur la Table had nothing. A local restaurant supply store also had nothing (which I found both surprising and disappointing). But the third time was a charm! A small hardware store in Houston's Galleria area had the exact pans I was looking for. They were labeled "panettone baking pans" and there were only three left. I bought them all.
Next, I had to buy the liquor. Most of the sweet variations of pizza di Pasqua I came across online use unflavored rum and an Italian liquor called alchermes, a crimson-colored liquor that originated in Florence during the nineteenth century. Thanks to a little research on Wikipedia, I learned that it is made by infusing neutral spirits with sugar, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and vanilla, along with some herbs. I also (regrettably) learned that the scarlet color of alchermes is derived from an insect called a kermes or cochineal. Not very surprisingly, the liquor became unpopular around the turn of the century after people learned about the insect ingredient. Nevertheless, I found it to be an interesting, albeit slightly gross, factoid. Alchermes is next to impossible to find outside of Italy, so I substituted a delicious Italian cherry liquor, Sangue Morlacco, which is widely available in a well-stocked liquor store. The use of a red-tinged liquor in my family's version of pizza di Pasqua is not only for great flavor, but for color, as well. Once baked, the inside of the pizze are tinged a beautiful pale pink color.
Finally, I had everything I needed to make my pizze. Although my grandmother and her sisters would make these by hand, I opted to use my stand mixer and I'm glad I did. I'm not sure I would have had the stamina to beat the eggs and mix in the flour by hand. The process was fairly easy and quick after I had prepped and staged all of my ingredients. The dough smelled just like I remembered when my Nonna Liliana would make them. It did take my dough close to five (yes, five) hours to rise. I attributed this to the fact that I don't have any particularly warm areas in my house, and because the dough contains eggs and a little bit of butter, it's heavier, so rising will occur at a much slower pace. But the important thing was that they rose! My patience was rewarded when I went to bake them--they spent a mere thirty-five minutes in the oven and came out beautifully burnished and smelling divine.
In Italy, pizza di Pasqua is eaten the morning of Easter Sunday with hard boiled eggs and thin slices of salame, along with a little white wine. But, this morning, I broke tradition and had to taste a piece for breakfast. And I have to say, for having made these for the first time in my life, it wasn't bad! The crumb was light. Each pizza was evenly browned, with a light and delicate crust on the top. I probably could have used a little more salt since they were a tad bland. And the density was neither too light or too heavy. Apart from these minor details, I'm very proud of carrying on the family tradition of making pizza di Pasqua.
Happy Easter! Buona Pasqua!
Pizza di Pasqua
2-4 T. unsalted butter, at room temperature (to grease pans)
1/2 cup warm water (100-110 degrees)
3 T. (4-1/4 oz. envelopes) active dry yeast
4 eggs, at room temperature
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup milk (whole or 2%)
4 T. (2 fluid ounces) cherry liquor
3 T. (1 1/2 fluid ounces) rum (clear and unflavored)
2 T. butter, melted and cooled to room temperature
1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. lemon zest
1/4 tsp. salt
5 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting the work surface
- Digital instant-read thermometer (to measure temperature of water for yeast)
- Metal Panettone baking pans or tall souffle dishes (about 4-inches in depth and 7 1/2-inches in diameter)
Grease (2) 4-inch deep, straight-side panettone baking pans generously with butter. Trace the bottom circumference of one of the pans onto a sheet of parchment paper. Repeat on a second sheet of parchment paper. Cut out the parchment circles and line the bottom of each pan with a parchment circle. Butter the parchment paper circles. Set pans aside.
In a small bowl or measuring cup, dissolve the yeast in the warm water. Set aside.
In a large bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the eggs until well blended. Add the sugar and continue to beat the eggs until well incorporated. Add in the yeast mixture, milk, cherry liquor, rum, and melted butter and mix until well incorporated. Add the cinnamon and lemon zest, and mix to combine. Remove the whisk attachment and attach the dough hook.
Gradually start adding the flour one cup at a time and mix to incorporate, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary. After you have incorporated two cups of the flour, add in the salt. Continue to gradually add flour until a dough forms. The dough will be sticky and loose and will not form into solid mass, but it should hold together once all the flour has been added and incorporated.
Transfer the dough to a well-floured board and flour your hands. Pick up the mass of dough and lightly slap it down onto the board 3-4 times (this helps to incorporate air into the dough and will help it to rise better). Once the dough is smooth and elastic, cut the dough in half and transfer each piece to the buttered baking pans. Cover each baking pan with a clean dishtowel and allow them to rise in a warm, draft-free area. Allow the dough to rise for 2-3 hours or longer if necessary. You will know the dough has risen enough when you poke it and the indentation left by your finger springs back.
Bake at 350 degrees for 35-40 minutes, until a wooden skewer comes out clean and the pizze are golden brown in color. Store at room temperature covered in plastic wrap for up to 5 days.
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