Easter Adventures in Tuscany and tackling Carol Field’s Colomba

colomba - carol field

Surely the best thing about colomba, the Easter equivalent to panettone, is the sugared, toasted almond topping that covers the whole thing and crumbles when you cut it, so you sort of have no choice but just to pick up the crusty sugary bits and eat those on their own.

I’d always thought that colomba would make a very good baking project but was somewhat intimated by getting the right shape  — it’s vaguely in the shape of a dove, if you use your imagination — and texture — wonderfully soft, fluffy, sweet yeasted bread. I had attempted making panettone (this fig, walnut and date panettone) a few years ago with fair results — absolutely delicious results, actually, they were just not as fluffy and bouncy as expertly made ones from your favourite pastry shop where panettoni are hung upside-down to maintain their height and airiness.

But when I came across the familiar brown and gold paper forms for making colomba at the supermarket, I thought I’m only ever going to get a chance to make this now! Like the panettone, I referred to my favourite baking book for Italian specialties, Carol Field’s The Italian Baker.

Field recounts a bit of history behind the colomba, which I’m sure is little known to anyone these days. Colomba is a fixture at Easter tables all around Italy (and is often given as presents), even though it comes from the north of Italy, Pavia. It is one of those traditions that are now a given, where a slice of colomba, perhaps eaten with pieces of a cracked chocolate Easter egg and an espresso or a glass of dessert wine, is a welcome end to the meal (or indeed breakfast the next day). But the legend behind it is a medieval one and rather disturbing — maybe it was made up to encourage young girls to learn how to bake their own colomba (and make sure it was good) to get themselves out of sticky, undesirable situations.

The story goes that during the sixth century when Alboin, King of the Lombards, conquered Pavia after a three year siege, he demanded twelve girls to do with as he pleased. To quote Field’s story, “All except one girl wept and sobbed at her fate, but the one who used her head took some eggs, yeast, sugar, flour and candied fruits, and spices and made a sweet cake in the shape of a dove. When the king called her to his bed, the story goes, she brought him her colomba, which he ate with pleasure and then allowed her to go free.”

Field’s colomba recipe, in her typical style, is broken down into four different procedures (a sponge, a first dough, a second dough and that wonderful almond topping) to tackle that add somewhat to the intimidation but I tell you, it’s very doable (you’ll see the procedure is easy as pie and doesn’t require much effort or attention, even mixing by hand) and absolutely worthwhile. The only thing that I think will be a challenge for most modern home cooks is that the total rising time required is about 10 hours — that’s right. You can space it out in a day, if you happen to be at home pottering about, doing other things, the dough will just be sitting in a corner doing its thing — which is, I think, the best way to do this. If you want to split this up over two days, I would suggest doing the sponge and first dough one evening, then place the dough in the fridge to sit overnight and slowly rise — the only issue here is the butter, which hardens in the fridge, so the next morning let it come to room temperature again before proceeding with the second dough, shaping and rising. You can also prepare the almond mixture the day before if that helps.

One thing you will have after baking this is a whole lot of egg whites (you will need a couple of them later in the recipe but the rest can easily be frozen until you’re ready to use them for another baking project — I put them to use in some miniature pavlovas topped with cream and berries, see below!).

Easter colomba

Carol Field’s Easter Colomba
Colomba Pasquale

Note: I’ve amended the recipe to add some metric measurements and am only including the instructions for mixing by hand (mixing with a mixer is a luxury for me, I don’t have one! I always bake and knead by hand, but if you have a mixer you can be sure there’s a bit less time you’ll be spending on this). If (like all my Tuscan in-laws) you don’t like candied orange pieces you can either simply leave it out or you could replace it with sultanas (raisins) or good quality dark chocolate chips. I personally love them but I always look for artisan candied fruit, which comes in large pieces like quarters of an orange rind, which need to then be chopped but are soft, sweet but not too sweet and delicious — far superior to the pre-chopped, commercial sort. Really an entirely different ingredient.

For the sponge:

3 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
125 ml (1/2 cup) warm water
3 egg yolks
70 grams (1/2 cup) all purpose flour (I use tipo 00 flour)

Stir the yeast and sugar together with the water in a large bowl and let sit 10 minutes or until it begins to look foamy. Whisk in the egg yolks by hand, add the flour and combine until smooth. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside in a warm corner of the kitchen until doubled, roughly 30 minutes.

First dough:

1 teaspoon active dry yeast
80 ml (1/3 cup) warm water
45 grams (3 tablespoons) softened, unsalted butter
210 grams (1 1/2 cups) all purpose flour

In a small bowl, stir the yeast into the water and let dissolve for a few minutes. Stir this into the bowl with the sponge made above, then add the softened butter and the flour to make a rather sticky dough. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm corner of the kitchen for 1-2 hours or until doubled in volume.

Second dough:

145 grams (1/2 cup + 3 tablespoons) sugar
1 tablespoon honey
3 egg yolks
1 1/2 teaspoons of pure vanilla extract
2 oranges (preferably unwaxed and organic), zested
115 grams (1 stick) softened, unsalted butter
1 teaspoon salt
250 grams (2 cups) all purpose flour
150 grams (about 1 cup) chopped candied orange peel (see note above for substitutes)

Take the first dough, now risen, and add the sugar, honey (warmed slightly if very hard) and yolks, stirring thoroughly to combine. Add the vanilla, zest, butter, salt and flour — this last one adding a bit at a time. Stir until you have a soft dough, then knead on a clean, floured surface until elastic, about 7-10 minutes (I recommend doing this bit by hand even if you’ve mixed everything until now in a mixer).

Place the dough back in the large bowl (lightly oiled around the sides), cover and let rise until tripled, about 3 1/2 hours. You’re looking a dough full of large air bubbles when it is fully risen.

Shaping the dough:

Separate the dough into two portions and on a lightly floured surface, flatten each piece and scatter over the candied peel. Roll into a log , flatten again and roll with your hands to obtain a log about 25cm (10 inches), with slightly tapered ends. Do the same with the other piece but shape it into a fatter log about 18 cm (7 inches). If you have the special dove-shaped form, simply lay the long piece along the longer side of the form (which corresponds to the tail and body), then, after making a slight indentation in the centre of the long log, layer the shorter piece over the top of this indentation for the wings. If you don’t have a form, you can also build this “free form” doing the same thing, placing the shorter piece over the top of the long piece, almost like a cross, on a lined baking tray. Cover with a clean tea towel and let it rise until doubled in size, about 2 hours (3 if your kitchen is cold) — you can also warm things up a bit by keeping it in the oven with just the pilot light on or (Field’s suggestion) even putting the tray carefully over the top of a pan of steaming water.

In the meantime, prepare the sugar almond topping:

50 grams of blanched almonds
25 grams of bitter almonds or apricot kernels (these can be found in specialist Italian delis — otherwise use regular almonds and a touch of almond extract)
130 grams (1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons) sugar
1-2 egg whites (as needed)
40 grams of whole (unpeeled) raw almonds
1-2 tablespoons raw sugar (turbinado sugar)
Powdered sugar

In a food processor (or a mortar and pestle!), process the blanched almonds, bitter almonds (if using) and sugar until fine. Stir in enough egg white for the mixture to be spreadable but not too runny (if using almond extract, stir it in at this point). Very gently spread this mixture over the top of the risen Colomba, dotting with the whole raw almonds all over the surface. Sprinkle the raw sugar evenly over the top, then follow with a layer of sifted powdered sugar.

You’re finally ready to bake!

Bake at 200C (400F) for first 10 minutes, then reduce to 180C (250F) and continue baking a further 40 minutes. Cool completely on a rack before showing off at your Easter table.

Easter-egg-hunt-1

Happy Easter! Buona Pasqua!

There is a phrase in Italian: Natale con i tuoi, pasqua con chi vuoi, which means you should spend Christmas with your family but Easter with whoever you like!

I’ll leave you with some scenes of my idea of a perfect Tuscan Easter, spent a couple of hours drive from Florence in Monte Argentario in the Maremma — incidentally, the place that inspired my cookbook, Acquacotta. It is a beautiful time to travel around Tuscany. Although it’s too cold to swim (that never stops my family from trying), the hot springs at Saturnia are lovely (and yes, we actually stopped the car to help guide a lamb back to its owner!), as is playing on the beach which is gloriously empty and spacious at this time of year — if you’re going there, have a look at the Argentario food guide I wrote for Gourmet Traveller last year as well as this one specifically about Porto Ercole.

P.S. The pastries below get a special mention because they are out of this world, particularly the one on the left, tette di monache, or, you’ll love this — nun’s tits — from Pasticceria Ferrini in Orbetello, which you’ll pass through to reach the promontory of Monte Argentario.

Easter-baby-artichokesEaster-Argentario-Porto-Santo-StefanoEaster-Argenario-with-friendsEaster in Tuscany pizza-1Easter-Argentario-eatsEaster-Port-ErcoleEaster-SaturniaEaster-pavlova-and-drinks

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Comments

5 Responses to “Easter Adventures in Tuscany and tackling Carol Field’s Colomba”
  1. Catarina says:

    Looks good! I still haven’t made one. I’m a bit traumatized with panettone. I baked an Iginio Massari’s sourdough panettone and after being hunged upside-down for 30 minutes the top fell down. It wasn’t cooked trough…my little toupée panettone ☺

    • Emiko Davies says:

      I know what you mean about the panettone, it can be so disheartening after spending all that time and effort. I absolutely loved the outcome of this colomba though and have seen that many others had great results too!

  2. Lisa says:

    The colomba does look very beautiful! And might I add, even more attractive with the mould slightly under-filled as you have done.

    I didn’t know about the history. It almost seems as though the word “colomba” is used as a euphemism for something else!

    • Emiko Davies says:

      Thank you Lisa! I actually had enough to fill two small colomba moulds so they didn’t quite fill (and explode) to the top but it was nice to have two — one to give away and one to keep for myself!

  3. The dessert is very delicious… Besides, this place is worth visiting… Thank you and take care now.

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