When I was a child in the late 1960s many homes, including the one of my Umbrian grandmother, didn’t have an oven and took their bread to the bakery for cooking. Easter was an especially busy time, with women preparing Torta di Pasqua, a leavened cheese bread traditionally served for our hearty Easter breakfast.
In the countryside, 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 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.
My Sicilian mum, who was a delicate city dweller, would not get involved into the work intensive operation, she did not have the muscles for it. She bought the chocolate eggs and prepared a huge Easter lunch completely ignoring the fact that we would have a full meal at 9 o’clock and then another full meal less than 3 hours later.
As a child, 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 walked 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 Easter Saturday everything was finished (to everyone’s relief). We’d pack in a basket the essential components of the Easter breakfast: a torta, a salami, a thick bar of chocolate, a bottle of sweet wine, a few hard boiled eggs. Then we took them all to our church for a blessing so we could have a proper Easter breakfast the next day. And yes, also as children we had to have a sip of blessed sweet wine for breakfast — even though we preferred the chocolate.
Decades later I have a beautiful professional oven and take care of my own baking. Still, I miss the excitement, the communal effort, and the heavenly smell in the streets.
Easter bread is now available all year long in Umbrian 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 in this case please), and make your own breakfast. You’re allowed to skip the wine, but I wouldn’t, especially if it’s been blessed.
- 500 g (1 lb) bread flour, preferably organic and stone ground.
- 200 g (7 oz) grated cheese (1/2 parmesan, 1/2 aged pecorino).
- 100 g (3.5) oz diced young pecorino.
- 6 eggs.
- 2 teaspoon salt
- 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 loaf pan taking care not to fill it more than half-way. I use two 1.2 lt (4 cups) loaf pans.
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.
Even if you don’t do Easter breakfast, the cheese bread makes a wonderful appetizer served in the form of small sandwiches filled with capocollo or salami or preserved artichokes and a little mayo.
The bread keeps several days if kept in a plastic bag. Refrigerate if you live in a warm climate and slightly heat slices in the microwave before serving.