I just can’t let Easter go by without writing about my family’s Easter tradition of Easter Bread. It is a paschal ritual in my dad’s hometown of Monte di Procida in Italy. The old fashioned way is to start with a mother yeast that everyone makes themselves called “criscito” which is mixed into sweet bread dough that needs to rise for three days and finally sweet fragrant loaves are baked in a wood burning oven. The name of this bread was called “casatiello” aka panettone. But growing up in my large Italian/American family this old tradition turned into a competitive baking contest. In my family, Lent was not only regarded as a Christian event where we fast and give up stuff (never panettone recipes!) but we also 40 days of planning the art of baking panettone (Easter bread).
One year my dad brought us to Italy to experience Easter in Monte di Procida. While we there we made sure to visit our very large family. Every house we visited the matriarch of the house brought us into a warm room specially heated for the revered panetone. We were shown rows and rows of pans filled with rising dough covered under blankets waiting for Holy Saturday to be baked. Now mind you the judging starts even before the bread is baked. Everyone is eagerly watching their breads rise. If it rises too fast that it will be a big flop. If it rises too slow it will be hard as a rock. At twelve years old I thought this was comical as we all peered into all these pans. We were made to look at these pans as if was the latest discovery! It left quite a mark in my memory because I am chuckling as I envision this in my mind. Every household had their own secret recipe. You may ask why all these pans and pans of breads. Every family makes a large one for themselves. And then several smaller ones for each of the children. And let us not forget the fiancés. The mother-in-law has to show off her baking expertise to her future daughter-in-law.
Here in America my whole extended family practiced this tradition. So you can imagine the amount of Easter bread that was made. But what was even funnier is that my father, the chef, made Easter bread and also my mother made her own batch. It ended up being a contest within our own household. My dad’s brothers and their wives also made Easter bread. And guess what? Yup! Our Italian customers and employees got into the act too!! And you can’t leave out Cafe Aurora the Italian Bakery in our town. They also brought in their own bread to add to the collection!! So by Easter Sunday the restaurant was wall to wall Easter Bread.
The competition itself was not a formal competition but was just informal tastings. It was like “Hey Joe, taste my Easter Bread how good it came out!”. And my dad would proudly encourage the competitor to try his too. Let me share with you all a secret. Lean closer! I am going to whisper. I don’t want anyone to hear me. I don’t know if any of you have ever tried their Easter bread. It’s not that good! Oh my!! I can’t believe I actually said it. Actually it’s an acquired taste. It comes in a variety of ways its either really dry and flavorful or it is moist and light. (Most of my family’s panettone/casatiello was dry! I think they drank it with lots of wine to wash it down!) Some are braided with colored eggs. Always with bits of dried fruit throughout. The custom is to eat this bread at the end of their meal with jugs of wine. That year we went to Italy for Easter I witnessed something that we don’t do in America. The Monday after Easter is also a national holiday. It’s called Lunedi in Albis. In Monte di Procida, the townspeople all go out and have picnics to celebrate spring! I remember Lunedi Albis quite vividly! My cousins and I had a picnic in the vineyards. There are no open fields in Monte di Procida only vineyards. Guess what we ate? Yes, that dry casatiello along with hard boiled eggs! But you know what? It was actually a delicious picnic sitting there on the mountain side amidst the grape vines with the sun overhead!
Over the years our competitors have given up the challenge but I continue on. The craziness that I experienced growing up with this informal Panettone/Casatiello competition has rubbed off on me. With no competition I still keep making loaves and loaves of it myself trying to get the perfect recipe. I always try a new recipe every year. I am still trying to find the perfect recipe that everyone can actually enjoy. It’s not Easter without a battle of the Easter Breads even if it just with myself now. Happy Easter everyone! I need to run to put another batch in the oven!