Recipe: Easter Bread / Pinze

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Yield: makes 3 loaves

Most of the Christian Mediterranean cultures have some form of rich, festive egg breads that they prepare for the Holy Week before Easter. This is when pinze were made at our house. It is a tradition that is still strong in the Veneto region of Italy. The panettone and colomba cakes often found today in the country are derivatives of pinza.

Making good pinze requires some understanding of leavening and bread making--which I have described carefully below. It also requires patience because the dough, rich with eggs and butter, requires several long risings.

Serve slices of pinza with espresso, tea or in the morning with caffe latte. For a richer dessert, top with whip cream or mascarpone and berries or enjoy it as is on a wonderful festive table or have it for brunch on Easter Sunday. The loaves keep well for one week if sealed in plastic wrap or 6 to 8 weeks in the freezer. For the effort, it pays to make a larger quality and enjoy for weeks after.

1 1/2 cups golden raisin
1/2 cup dark rum
1 cup milk
1 1/2 cups plus
2 tablespoons sugar
2 1/2 ounces (1/3 cup) fresh yeast, crumbled or three 1-ounce packages instant dry yeast
10 cups unbleached flour, or as needed, sifted
3 whole eggs, at room temperature
6 egg yolks
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened, plus more for the bowl of dough
1/2 cup Vinsanto or Verduzzo or other sweet white wine
Grated zest (yellow part only without underlying white pith) of 2 large lemons
Grated zest (orange part only without underlying white pith) of 1 orange
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 tablespoons water

Combine the raisins and rum in a small bowl and toss to mix. Let the raisins soak in the rum, tossing them occasionally, while preparing the bread.

In a medium-size saucepan, heat the milk over medium heat to lukewarm, about 100 F. Pour the scalded milk into a large bowl and add ½ cup of the sugar and the crumbled yeast. Stir until the yeast and sugar are dissolved. Add 1 cup of the flour and stir until the mixture is smooth. Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel and let it rise in a warm, draft free place--like on top of the refrigerator or in a gas oven with the pilot light on-- until frothy. Stir the dough with a fork to deflate it, and let it rise and froth two more times, stirring it down thoroughly and recovering it after each. Depending on the environment, these three risings can take from 20 minutes to 45 minutes.

In the bowl of a heavy duty electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, whip 2 of the whole eggs, 2 of the yolks and 1/2 cup of the remaining sugar at medium speed until foamy and pale yellow. Add 4 tablespoons of the butter, the wine, lemon and orange zest, vanilla and salt. Beat until only small pieces of butter remain. Scrape the yeast mixture into the mixer bowl and beat until blended.

Change to the dough hook attachment of the mixer and reduce the speed to low. Add 5 cups of the remaining flour, one cup at a time, until the mixture forms sticky dough. Wait for each cup of flour to be incorporated before adding the next and stop the machine occasionally to scrape any unmixed ingredients from the sides and bottom of the bowl into the dough. The dough will be quite sticky; form it into a rough ball, clean the sides of the bowl and cover the bowl with a kitchen towel. Let the dough rise in a warm place as above until doubled in bulk, from 1 to 2 hours.

Return the bowl of dough to the mixer fitted with the dough hook. Mix the dough at medium-low speed until deflated. Add the remaining 4 egg yolks and ½ cup of the remaining butter and beat until incorporated. Gradually add enough of the remaining 4 cups of flour--about 3 cups--to form a firm but slightly sticky dough, stopping the mixer occasionally to scrape unmixed ingredients from the sides and bottom of the bowl into the dough. Add the raisins and rum and mix until incorporated. The dough will be quite wet and sticky at this point.

Turn the dough out onto a well floured surface. Knead the dough, adding some of the remaining flour as necessary to prevent the dough from sticking to your hands and to the table, until the dough is smooth and soft and only very slightly sticky if left to rest a minute. (See notes on kneading pasta, page 000)

Turn the dough into a large lightly buttered bowl and turn the dough to butter all sides. Cover the bowl and set dough to rise in a warm, draft free place until doubled in size, from 45 minutes to two hours, depending on the environment.

Turn the risen dough onto the work surface and knead until deflated. Cut the dough into three equal pieces and knead each into a ball, gathering and pinching the seam side of the dough together to form as smooth a ball as possible. (These formed loaves can be tightly wrapped in plastic wrap and refrigerated overnight. Allow extra time for these refrigerated loaves to rise in the following step.)

Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Place two loaves on one of the baking sheets, leaving as much space between them and the edges of the pan as possible. Place the third loaf in the center of the other baking sheet. With a pair of kitchen scissors, make three 1 1/2 inch- deep and 3 inch-long intersecting cuts that meet at the center to form a star pattern on the pinnacle of each loaf. The cuts should be quite deep--at least half way through the loaf--to allow the dough to rise up from the center and form the traditional pattern of dough crests around the loaf. Cover the loaves lightly with kitchen cloths and let raise in a warm corner of stove until double in size, 1 to 2 hour.

In the meantime, preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Bake bread for 35 minutes. Whisk the 1 remaining egg with the remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar and 2 tablespoons of water until very smooth and the sugar is dissolved. Brush the pinze with this egg mixture, return them to the oven and continue baking until very deep golden brown and a knife inserted into the center of the loaves is withdrawn clean, about 20 minutes.

Cool the pinze completely on a rack before slicing.