Welcome to the March edition of Cucina Conversations! We are reprising our theme of Pasqua to share more of Italy’s regional Easter recipes. The week before Easter in Italy is always a flurry of activity in home kitchens and bakeries alike as home cooks and professional bakers across Italy turn out traditional yeasted breads and torte-both sweet and savory-to be enjoyed on Easter morning alongside hard boiled eggs and a variety of thinly sliced salumi. My contribution for this month’s topic is this savory crescia al formaggio.
Like pizza di Pasqua and focaccia Veneta, crescia al formaggio is an egg-enriched, yeasted bread that traditionally opens Easter breakfast or lunch. It is native to the central Italian regions of Umbria, Abruzzo, Molise, Lazio, and Le Marche and is also known as crescia brusca and torta al formaggio.
The origin of crescia al formaggio dates back to medieval times, where the first recipe is credited to nuns of the monastero di Santa Maria Maddalena in the region of Le Marche. The recipe was rediscovered during the 19th century, where it became part of the region’s recipe canon, and where ingredient quantities were finally recorded. One of the earliest recorded recipes used forty eggs to divide between only five to six crescie! The number forty wasn’t arbitrary, though–it symbolized the past solemn forty days of Lent. Since working in the fields and self-sufficiency were still the norm during the 1800’s, where rich ingredients were hard to come by, crescia al formaggio was considered a special and sacred treat, and was only baked on Holy Thursday or Good Friday. It was made by village women who would make five to six crescie at a time starting at nine o’clock in the evening (presumably because they had been working in the fields and homestead all day). Once the crescie had fully risen, they would be taken to a communal wood burning oven, shared by the residents of the entire village. Once baked, the crescie would be taken to church along with the other foods eaten on Easter Sunday for everything to be blessed.
Crescia gets its name from the Italian verb crescere, meaning “to grow” and refers to the dramatic way the dough rises and domes above the rim of the pan or baking form. As its name indicates, the brioche-like dough is enriched with a mix of cheeses, traditionally pecorino romano and Parmgiano Reggiano. Since recipes can vary from household to household within the same region, it isn’t uncommon to also find recipes that include other cheeses. I used a mix of grated fontina and pecorino romano, which was gifted to me by my sweet friends, Francesca and Alexandra when we were in Rome earlier this year. Although my dough rose well, it didn’t dome over the rims of my baking pans, which I attribute to my use of the denser fontina. Nevertheless, they still rose evenly and baked up beautifully, so I’m hardly disappointed!
My fellow Cucina Conversations friends have a delicious and beautiful assortment of traditional Easter recipes, both sweet and savory, and they are incredibly impressive. Francesca made a lovely ricotta and chocolate crostata; Carmen made cassatelle siciliane; Marialuisa made abbacchio alla scottadito con erbe amare (grilled lamb chops with bitter greens); Daniela made torta di riso massese (Tuscan baked rice custard); Lisa made Liguria’s famous torta pasqualina; and Rosemarie made salame del papa (“Pope’s salame”), which is actually a “salame” made of chocolate!
I hope you enjoy reading more about Italy’s traditional and varied Easter recipes. It was certainly fun returning to this topic again this year to continue learning new recipes for the Easter holiday–this is one of my favorite aspects of writing and sharing this monthly post.
Adapted from The Italian Baker by Carol Field
Carol Field’s recipe lists the cooking time as 45 minutes, but my crescia loaves were finished after only 30 minutes, so I recommend checking your loaves at the thirty minute mark by insetting a cake tester through the center and ensuring it comes out clean.
Because there are raw eggs in this dough, put some flour in a small bowl and take it from there to flour your board. This way, you will not cross-contaminate the entire bag of flour.
Special equipment: kitchen scale, stand mixer with paddle and dough hook attachments
- ½ Tablespoon unsalted butter, for buttering the bowl to proof the dough
- 4¼ teaspoons (15 grams) active dry yeast
- ⅓ cup (75 mL) warm water 100°F – 110°F (38°C – 43°C)
- 1 Tablespoon honey
- 4 large eggs, room temperature
- 4 large egg yolks, room temperature
- 1½ sticks (170 grams) unsalted butter, room temperature
- Scant 2 cups (250 grams) all-purpose flour
- Scant 2 cups (250 grams) bread flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 ⅔ cups (200 grams) grated fontina cheese
- 1 cup (100 grams) grated pecorino Romano
- 1 large egg white, lightly beaten (for brushing tops of loaves before baking)
- Take the butter and use it to grease a large bowl for proofing the dough. Set aside.
- Place the yeast, honey, and water in the work bowl of a stand mixer and whisk to combine. Let stand for 10 minutes to allow the yeast to activate (it will get bubbly). Using the paddle attachment, mix in the eggs, egg yolks, and butter (the butter may not break up completely). Add in both flours and the salt and mix for 2 minutes until the dough comes together, scraping down the sides of the bowl with a spatula as necessary. Switch to the dough hook and knead at medium speed for about 5-10 minutes, adding flour in small amounts as necessary to prevent the dough from sticking. Continue kneading until the dough forms a ball and pulls away from the sides of the work bowl.
- Transfer the dough to a well-floured work surface and gradually knead in sprinkles of the cheese until all of it has been incorporated. This will take some time. The dough will be slightly gritty in texture when you are finished. It should also be rich and have considerable spring.
- Place the dough in the lightly buttered bowl, cover with a clean dish towel and place it in a warm, draft-free space to rise undisturbed (such as the oven–turned off–with the light on). Let proof until doubled in size, about 2-2½ hours.
Shaping and second rise
- Turn the proofed dough out onto a lightly floured work surface cut it into two pieces. Shape each piece into a large, tight ball and let them rest, covered with a clean dish towel for 10 minutes. Reshape each dough ball into a tight ball again, and place them seam side down into 2 lightly oiled tall, round baking pans, or panettone paper molds. Place the baking pans in a warm, draft-free space again covered with a clean dish towel and let rise for 2-2½ hours more. The dough should reach the top rim of the baking pans (or close to it).
- Preheat the oven to 425°F (220°C). Brush the tops of each crescia loaf with the egg white. Bake the loaves side-by-side (with space between them) on an oven rack set in the center for 30-45 minutes. The tops should be domed and deep golden brown. Begin testing for doneness after 30 minutes. Once the loaves are cooked, remove them to a baking rack and let them rest for 15 minutes before un-molding them. To un-mold the loaves (if baked in metal baking pans), run a sharp knife along the sides and turn them upside down over a baking rack. Flip immediately and let cool completely before transferring them to platters.