Today is Pasquetta (“little Easter”) in Italy, a national holiday and a day that Italians take to spend with family and friends to celebrate the beginning of spring. Italians have a saying they like to invoke at Easter and on Pasquetta: “Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi.” (“Christmas with your family, Easter with whomever you want.”). The saying sounds much better in Italian particularly because it rhymes, and it reflects the more casual nature of the day after Easter when Italians go on outings to parks or the countryside to enjoy a day of fun and leisure. Packing a picnic for a day spent outdoors is a tradition specific to celebrating Pasquetta, and the fare is usually simple finger food that can be eaten at room temperature such as various salumi, olives, bread, hard boiled eggs, and any leftovers from Easter breakfast or lunch, including this Italian Easter Bread, known as pizza di Pasqua.
Italy has several traditional sweet and savory breads that are made only for Easter. There is the torta pasqualina of Liguria, a savory torte filled with sautéed greens, herbs, ricotta, and eggs, and encased in several layers of paper-thin pastry dough. The pastiera napoletana is a sweet double-crusted cake traditional to Napoli that encases a filling of cooked wheat berries, ricotta, sugar, eggs, candied citrus, and spices. In the north-east region of Friuli, there is gubana, a sweet, dense, brioche-like bread studded with raisins, a variety of nuts, and moistened with five different liquors and wines. And then there is the more well-known colomba pasquale, a sweet yeasted bread shaped into the form of a dove and generously covered in coarse sugar crystals and almonds.
Pizza di Pasqua is popular to the central regions of Italy, specifically Umbria, Lazio, and Marche. It was made every year in my family in the days preceding Easter. An entire day or two would be dedicated to making them, usually at my maternal grandparents’ apartment. The recipe would be reviewed, a little math would be done to figure out how to multiply the recipe, and then the dough-making would begin. These were the days before there were stand mixers in our kitchens, so the soft, dense, and maddeningly sticky dough was mixed and kneaded by hand before it was divided, placed into well-buttered, tall-sided baking dishes, and set aside for a long, slow rise before being baked off. We would cut into one on Easter Sunday morning, after returning home from Mass, and enjoy a hearty slice with the traditional Italian Easter breakfast of a hard boiled egg and a few slices of salami.
Last week, when I went to look for my grandmother’s recipe, I couldn’t find it. Thankfully, Carol Field’s book, The Italian Baker came to my rescue with a recipe similar to my grandmother’s and with specific instructions to use a stand mixer to mix and knead the dense dough (hallelujah). This was only my second time making Italian Easter Bread, so I can’t say I’m especially experienced. It was, however, my first time making Carol Field’s recipe, and it’s definitely a keeper.
As I worked my way through Carol’s recipe, I noted differences in the ingredients and method against my memory of my grandmother’s recipe. The dough of my grandmother’s recipe is perfumed with lemon zest; Carol’s recipe includes both lemon and orange zest. Then there are details such as the use of whole eggs (my grandmother’s recipe) versus egg yolks (Carol’s recipe) and the quantity of each. Carol’s recipe excludes liquor in favor of vanilla extract, whereas my grandmother’s recipe includes rum and Alchermes, a strong, scarlet red dessert liquor which tinges the interior crumb a faint pink.
The methods of both recipes are fundamentally the same with the only major difference being that Carol Field’s Italian Easter Bread recipe starts with a sponge. Although my breads didn’t develop their signature smooth, domed top (a result of using baking pans that were a little too high) I was fairly pleased with the end result of Carol’s recipe. I found the crumb drier and slightly denser than that of my grandmother’s pizze di Pasqua, which I’m attributing to Carol’s use of egg yolks and bread flour. Overall, the pizze di Pasqua had a well-textured crumb, evenly browned exteriors and they rose evenly. The final product wasn’t identical to my grandmother’s pizza di Pasqua, but they came close and it was helpful trying a different recipe and making comparisons.
As luck would have it, I found my grandmother’s pizza di Pasqua recipe residing in my “Recipes” folder on my computer just yesterday (Easter miracle?), so I’ll be experimenting again, merging aspects of both recipes together, tweaking quantities, ingredients, and methods so I can make an Italian Easter Bread that I can call my own.Print
Adapted from The Italian Baker by Carol Field
To Make the Sponge:
- ½ cup warm water (100°F- 110°F)
- 3½ teaspoons active dry yeast
- ½ cup bread flour
To Make the Dough:
- 3¼ cups bread flour
- 10 large egg yolks
- ½ cup + 2 Tablespoons granulated sugar
- ½ cup milk (whole or 2%)
- Zest of 3 oranges
- Zest of 2 lemons
- 1½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract (or Alchermes liquor)
- 1 stick + 1 Tablespoon unsalted butter, at room temperature (plus 2 Tablespoons for greasing the pans)
- 1 large egg white, beaten (for the egg wash)
- Start by greasing 2 baking pans with 1 Tablespoon of butter each, and set aside.
Make the sponge:
- In the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk the yeast into the water and let stand until foamy, about 10 minutes.
- Add the flour and whisk until the mixture is smooth. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and set aside to rise, about 1 hour. The sponge should have bubbles and be doubled in size.
Make the dough:
- Add the flour to the sponge and using the paddle attachment, beat the mixture until it is incorporated. The mixture will look dry and crumbly.
- Beat in the egg yolks one at a time, mixing well after each addition.
- Add in the granulated sugar and mix until incorporated.
- Add in the milk and mix until combined.
- Add in the orange and lemon zests and the vanilla extract (or Alchermes) and mix until blended. Note: Stop your mixer a few times to scrape down the paddle and the sides of the work bowl.
- Beat in the butter 2 Tablespoons at a time. Once all the butter is incorporated, the dough will be smoother and looser in texture.
- Continue to beat the mixture on medium-high speed until the dough becomes denser and more elastic, 10-15 minutes. The texture of the dough will be very soft and sticky, but it should begin to hold together in a loose mass once it is fully kneaded.
- Transfer the dough to a well-floured board. Flour your hands well and gather the dough into a ball.
- Cut the ball of dough evenly in half and shape into two round loaves. Place each ball of dough in the buttered baking pans, cover with a clean dish cloth and set them in a warm place to rise until doubled, about 2½ – 3 hours. The dough should fill the entire baking pan once it has fully risen.
- Heat the oven to 400ºF and set the rack to the middle position.
- Brush the tops of each loaf with the beaten egg white.
- Bake for 35 – 40 minutes, or until a cake tester comes out clean. Tent the tops with aluminum foil if they are browning too quickly.
- Once the loaves are finished baking, cool them on a rack for 15 -20 minutes before removing them from the baking pans to finish cooling.
- Because there are raw eggs in this dough, be sure to put some flour in a separate bowl and use it to flour your board and hands. This will prevent cross-contaminating the entire bag of flour.
- Special Equipment: stand mixer; oven-safe soufflé dishes (or tall-sided baking pans)
- Storage: Store at room temperature covered tightly in plastic wrap. You can also wrap them in plastic wrap and aluminum foil and freeze for up to 1 month.