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!
Italian Easter Bread (Casatiello Dolce)
3-3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon active dry yeast
1/4 teaspoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon of dry vanilla
1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon
3 large eggs, room temperature
¼ cup lukewarm water
1/3 cup of orange juice
1 tablespoon warm honey
2 oz of Strega Liquor
11-1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter (10-1/2 tablespoons softened and cut into tablespoons; 1 tablespoon chilled)
1. In the bowl of the stand mixer, mix the flour, sugar, salt, yeast, lemon zest, vanilla and cinnamon at low speed.
2. In a small bowl, whisk together the eggs, 1/4 cup lukewarm water, 1/3 cup warm orange juice and honey.
3. While the mixer runs at low speed, pour the egg mixture into the dry ingredients. Increase speed to medium-low and continue mixing.
4. Add the softened butter, 1 tablespoon at a time, mixing completely before adding each. Increase the speed to medium-high and mix until the dough is smooth and elastic, about 8 minutes.
5. Place the dough in the large bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise in a cold oven with the door closed for about 12 to 15 hours, until the dough is nearly tripled in volume.
Rub your hands with flour, sprinkle the top of the dough lightly with some flour, and turn out onto a floured board. Sprinkle a little more flour onto the dough. Divide in half
6. Prepare 2 small pans with a high edge. Line with parchment paper.
7. Fold the edges of the dough into the center and place seam side down into the prepared pans. Cover with a damp tea towel (not terry cloth) and let rise in a draft-free spot at room temperature about 3 to 5 hours, until dough is just above the top of the mold.
8. Place the rack in the lower third (closer to the bottom than the middle) of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. (If the dough is too high in the oven, the top will brown before the middle is cooked, resulting in a burned top crust.)
9. Use a serrated knife to score and X across the entire surface of the dough. Place 1/2 tablespoon chilled butter in the center of the X in each dough.
10. Bake in the preheated oven about 45 minutes to an hour, until a wooden skewer inserted in the center comes out slightly moist but not wet or doughy. To keep the Easter bread from getting too dark I put a piece of parchment over each loaf and then remove the last 15 minutes.
11. After its cooled you can frost with a meringue and sprinkles. Or you can make a glaze heating anisette with sugar and then glazing with sprinkles. Or plain with just some powdered sugar.
Buona Pasqua! Happy Easter!