When I think of Christmas in Italy, I think of Panettone, and this sweet bread formed in the shape of a dove is what you find across Italy at Easter. Although Italians outdo themselves baking regional sweets for every holiday, this traditional sweet bread is one you will find in every region at Easter. The dough is very similar to Panettone as it is an enriched dough that includes fresh eggs, sugar, butter, and natural yeast.
The flavorings for this bread usually contain candied orange peel and dried fruit, most often raisins, although these days you can find a Colomba made with everything from chocolate chips to a filling of either lemon or Nutella! Traditionally this bread is topped with a shiny glaze, pearl sugar, and almonds, and you will find it everywhere at Easter sold wrapped in colorful paper.
These colorfully wrapped sweet breads are often given to family and friends as gifts at Easter. This sweet breads is great sliced and toasted, eaten with a cappuccino for breakfast, or enjoyed after your meal with a glass of sweet wine.
I first made this bread almost twenty years ago when we lived in Milan, but since it is much easier (and cheaper) to buy top quality Easter sweet breads at your local bakery, I must admit until this week, I haven’t made it since.
I actually ended up making this bread twice this week. I first followed an Italian recipe but didn’t feel that my Colomba rose enough. It didn’t have that impressive appearance I was looking for. I then followed King Arthur Flour’s version as their recipes have always turned out for me.
I made a few changes in the recipe, but I found that if you followed the instructions as written, your bread would be overbaked. The recipe was what I was looking for, however, so I just made a few changes and got to work.
So why shape the bread like a dove? There are many versions of the story, but apart from stating that the first Colomba originated in Milan and that the dove represents peace, every legend is different. One legend traces this Easter cake to the Lombard king Alboino who during the siege of Pavia in the mid-sixth century saw himself offering, as a sign of peace, a sweet pan-shaped dove.
Another legend says the Easter dove linked to the Lombard Queen Teodolinda and the holy Irish abbot San Colombano who refused a huge meat-filled feast created for him as he was observing Lent. When the Queen took offense, the abbot raised his right hand as a sign of the cross, and the dishes turned into white doves of bread, white as their monastic tunics. Whatever its origin, this bread represents Easter to many Italians.
This recipe requires an overnight biga, so it is best to start the day before you want to bake it. Just like Panettone, it also requires long rising or resting periods, about 4 to 6 hours total, so do ensure you plan to make this bread when you have time on your hands.
For me, it wouldn’t be a Colomba without candied orange and raisins, but if candied orange is difficult to find or not to your liking, you could use fresh orange zest instead. I like golden raisins in this bread, and I use more than called for, but any raisin or dried fruit such as cranberries could be used.
Although whole almonds are traditional used to top this bread, I prefer sliced almonds instead. I was able to find the dove-shaped paper forms used to make this bread on our recent trip to Emilia Romagna, but you could also shape the dough by hand as instructed below, or just use a large soufflé dish and shape it like you would a Panettone.
- 1 Cup All-purpose Flour
- 1/2 Cup Cool Water
- 1/8 Teaspoon Instant Yeast
- 2 1/2 Cups All-purpose Flour
- 1 Teaspoon Salt
- 1 Tablespoon Instant Yeast (I Use SAS Brand)
- 1/3 Cup Sugar
- 6 Tablespoons Butter, Melted & Cooled
- 2 Large Eggs & 1 Egg yolk At Room Temperature (Save Egg With For Topping)
- 1/2 Teaspoon Fiori di Sicilia (Or 2 Teaspoons Vanilla & 1/2 Teaspoon Orange Extract)
- 1/3 Cup Finely Chopped Candied Orange Peel (Or Grated Zest From 1 Large Orange)
- 1 1/2 Cups Golden Raisins, Chopped If Large
- 1 Large Egg White
- 3 Tablespoons Almond Flour
- 3 Tablespoons Granulated Sugar
- 2 Tablespoons Sliced Almonds
- 6 Teaspoons Pearl Sugar
- The night before, mix together your big ingredients in a small bowl, cover, and let rise overnight.
- The next day, in a large bowl, add the big starter, the flour, salt, yeast, sugar, butter, eggs, and extract.
- Use a wooden spoon to mix into a shaggy dough, then add the candied orange and raisins.
- Dump the dough out onto a lightly floured counter, and knead by hand until the dough is very smooth and elastic, about 7 to 8 minutes.
- Alternately, mix ingredients in a stand mixer with a dough hook until smooth.
- Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap and place in a warm spot in your kitchen to rise for 2 to 3 hours until soft and almost doubled in size.
- Divide the dough into two pieces and either place in your Colomba form, or shape by hand by forming a cross shape.
- Place the dough on a parchment lined baking sheet, cover with greased plastic wrap and let rise again for another 2 hours.
- At the end of your rising time, preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
- Make your topping by beating the egg whites until foamy, then adding the almond flour, and sugar.
- Liberally brush the top and sides of the bread with the egg white mixture and then scatter the pearl sugar and sliced almonds on top.
- Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until a cake tester comes out cleanly when inserted in the center. (If the bread darkens too much when baking, tent some aluminum foil on top.
- Cool completely, slice, and enjoy!
Adapted from King Arthur Flour Colomba di Pasqua
Nutrition Information:Yield: 16 Serving Size: 1 slice
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 274Total Fat: 7gSaturated Fat: 3gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 3gCholesterol: 69mgSodium: 188mgCarbohydrates: 47gFiber: 2gSugar: 22gProtein: 6g