ometimes I feel lucky to remember a completely different Italian way of life. I was a child in the late 1960s when many Umbrian villagers still didn’t have home ovens and took their bread to the bakery for cooking. Easter was an especially busy time, with women preparing Torta di Pasqua, leavened cheese bread traditionally served for Easter breakfast.
The whole idea of an “egg hunt” had a completely different meaning then. It wasn’t a game but a practical necessity. Some families made more than a dozen breads using up to 150 eggs.
My own dough-making grandmother required two or three strong people to knead the dough she’d assembled over two days. Rich in eggs, cheese and butter (or lard), the breads rose slowly in their terracotta molds.
I loved baking day. We had to pack the breads on a wooden board and cover them with thick towels to make sure they didn’t cool off and deflate. Then we went to the bakery where we’d booked a time slot for the cooking.
Breads of all shapes and sizes covered every available surface in the bakery. The shop swarmed as people hauled their doughy masterpieces in and out. You could smell the aroma blocks away.
On Saturday everything was finished (to everyone’s relief). We’d pack a torta, a salami, a thick slab of chocolate, a bottle of sweet wine and a few hard boiled eggs and take them all to the local church for a blessing so we could have a proper Easter breakfast the next day. And yes, we all had to have a sip of blessed sweet wine for breakfast — though we children preferred the chocolate.
Decades later I have a huge range-top oven and take care of my own baking. Still, I miss the excitement, the communal effort, and the heavenly smell in the streets.
Yes, Easter bread is now available all year long in most Italian supermarkets, but it’s a pale imitation of the real thing. If you want to savor the bread, and old times, in all their glory, get some artisan salami or capocollo (no prosciutto please), and make your own breakfast. You’re allowed to skip the wine.
Easter Bread (leavened cheese bread)
- 500 grams (1 lb) bread flour.
- 200 gr (7 oz) grated cheese (1/2 parmesan, 1/2 aged pecorino).
- 100 gr (3.5) oz diced young pecorino.
- 6 eggs.
- 60 gr (2 oz) butter or lard.
- 3 tablespoons olive oil.
- 1/4 liter milk (1 cup).
- 4 gr (1 teaspoon) dry active yeast.
— Make bread dough using the flour, a quarter teaspoon yeast and milk. Cover it with a thick towel and keep it overnight or until doubled in size in a draft free place in your kitchen.
— The next day, crack open the eggs in a bowl, add olive oil, grated and diced cheese, softened butter and 3/4 teaspoon yeast. Stir and add the mixture to the bread dough. Knead until completely incorporated. Transfer into a well-buttered mold taking care not to fill it more than half way. Cover and place in a draft-free environment until the dough fills the pan.
— Bake in preheated oven at 200C (390F) for about an hour or until golden and dry inside.
— When cooked, let it cool a little and retreat from the mold. Slice only when completely at room temperature.