By Heather Lalley, Special to Tribune Newspapers
March 27, 2013
Easter baskets in this country burst at the seams with toothachingly sweet treats (we're looking at you, neon-colored marshmallow Peeps). But why not break from tradition and fill your holiday table with some Italian baked goods this Easter? They're sweet and rich, to be sure, but they have a bit more style and class than some of those American basket-fillers.
"It's about the return of milk and eggs," says Chicago pastry chef Natalie Zarzour, who specializes in Italian desserts. "Everything is super, super rich. There's no such thing as too much cheese, too much ricotta."
It's hard to pinpoint traditional desserts that are popular throughout all of Italy, as each region has its own specialties. But most areas have favorite sweet breads, rich pies and delicate cookies served predominantly at Easter.
One widely known Easter treat, however, is dove bread (colomba di Pasqua), a sweet, yeasted bread in the same vein as Christmas panettone but in a bird shape. You can find it at many Italian-American grocery stores as well.
"The dove is a symbol of peace. Eggs are renewal," says Mary Ann Esposito, cookbook author and host of the long-running PBS series "Ciao Italia."
As in America, families have their own holiday favorites. Esposito remembers her mother making her northern Italian classic each Easter — a cream-filled, whiskey-doused spongecake that was covered in meringue and crisped in the oven like a baked Alaska. "She just called it torta di whiskey," she says with a laugh.
Zarzour, whose family is Sicilian, always thinks of pupu cu l'ovu (doll with the egg) at Eastertime. Hard-cooked eggs are enveloped in either cookie or brioche dough before being baked and garnished with glaze and candied anise seeds.
Sweet pies filled with fresh ricotta and even grains are also popular Italian Easter dessert choices. Candied citrus is often added to bring out the flavor of the cheese, but the farm-fresh product doesn't need much embellishment.
"When ricotta pie is made, it's usually for the sake of the ricotta," Zarzour says. "You don't mess it up with a lot of flavors."
Small cookies are popular on an Italian Easter spread, but this is not a time for fussy, intricate desserts. These are foods designed to bring family and friends together, in celebration of the season.
"They're beautiful in a rustic way," Zarzour says. "These things are made in family sizes. They're rustic and big and beautiful."
Ricotta pie (Torta di ricotta)
Prep: 40 minutes
Cook: 45 minutes to 1 hour
Servings: 10-12 , one 9-inch pie
Note: The dough should be made one day in advance. For best results, use fresh, hand-dipped ricotta. Look for it in Italian groceries or good cheese shops. Also, the ricotta for the filling will need to be drained one full day before preparing and baking. To drain ricotta, make sure you have one and a half times the amount called for, since it will lose some water as it drains. Place it in a fine mesh colander lined with cheesecloth and set the colander over a bowl, making sure the colander doesn't touch the bottom of the bowl. Place a heavy plate or bowl on top before refrigerating. Double zero flour (00 flour) is available at Italian import and other specialty stores. It produces a fine and delicate texture in pastry dough.
For the dough:
2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup granulated sugar
5 egg yolks
Grated zest of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 1/4 cups 00 flour or cake flour
For the filling:
4 eggs, separated
1/3 cup plus 3 tablespoons sugar
1 pound hand-dipped ricotta, drained
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1/4 cup thick Greek yogurt or sour cream
1/4 cup heavy whipping cream
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
Scraped seeds of 1 vanilla bean, optional
Grated zest of 1 lemon or orange, optional
1. For the dough, cream together all the ingredients except for the flour. When they have become light and silky, add the flour; mix only until the dough comes together. If using a stand mixer, manually scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl to be sure none of the creamed mixture remains unincorporated. (We found that adding 1 tablespoon ice water helped bring the dough together.) On a piece of plastic wrap, pat the dough into a round, flattened disk. Seal; refrigerate 1 day before continuing.
2. Using some additional flour, roll the dough with a rolling pin into a circle about 1/4-inch thick. Work carefully but quickly so that it doesn't become warm. Roll the dough over itself onto the pin in order to lift it; unroll it over a 9-inch springform pan. Gently adjust and press the dough into the pan; trim it so that it reaches three-quarters of the way up the sides of the pan. Place the pan in the refrigerator to keep dough chilled while preparing the filling. (Additional dough can be re-rolled and baked as cookies.)
3. Heat the oven to 325 degrees. For the filling, place the egg yolks into a mixing bowl with 3 tablespoons sugar, ricotta, flour, yogurt, cream, salt, vanilla and the vanilla bean seeds, if using. Whisk together until light and silky. Mix in the zest, if using.
4. Scrape mixture into a wide, shallow bowl with plenty of space. Thoroughly wash and dry the mixing bowl and the whisk. Place the egg whites in the bowl. Beat the whites by themselves with an electric mixer on high speed until frothy; add the remaining 1/3 cup sugar little by little while continuing to whisk. Whip together just until stiff and glossy. With a spatula, scrape the meringue into the bowl of creamed items. Fold them together until incorporated, using a motion that is gentle but quick.
5.Scrape the filling into the dough-lined pan; bake without opening the oven door, 45 minutes-1 hour. A deep golden color over the top of the torte is the best way to tell when it's finished. Once fully cooked, don't move the pan. Rather, turn the oven off and open the door. Remove when cool. Serve plain or dusted with powdered sugar. Store covered at room temperature for a few days or refrigerate if intending to keep longer. Enjoy at room temperature.
Nutrition information: Per serving (for 12 servings): 440 calories, 27 g fat, 16 g saturated fat, 209 mg cholesterol, 40 g carbohydrates, 10 g protein, 498 mg sodium, 1 g fiber.
Easter dove bread
Prep: 40 minutes
Rise: 1 hour, 20 minutes
Cook: 50 minutes
Servings: 30, 1 loaf
Note: Adapted from a recipe by Mary Ann Esposito. The dove shape of this bread is a very rough form. Pans and paper molds can be purchased at some Italian specialty stores, but the bird can be formed by hand as well.
1/4 cup warm water (110 to 115 degrees)
1 tablespoon active dry yeast
1/2 cup warm milk
2/3 cup sugar
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
1 tablespoon vanilla
3 large eggs, at room temperature
3 large egg yolks, at room temperature
4 1/2 to 5 cups flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 large egg white, slightly beaten
1 tablespoon turbinado (raw sugar) or coarse brown sugar
1. Combine warm water and yeast in large electric-mixer bowl. Stir to dissolve; allow to proof, 10 minutes.
2. Add the milk, sugar, butter, lemon zest, vanilla, whole eggs and yolks; beat on low speed to blend well. Increase speed to medium; beat, 3 minutes. Add 4 cups flour and the salt; beat on medium speed. Gradually add the remaining flour a little at a time, until a soft dough is formed. You may not need all the flour. (If using a stand mixer, start with the paddle attachment to mix the ingredients; switch to the dough hook once the dough forms. You can then knead the dough in the stand mixer.)
3. Turn dough out onto a floured surface; knead until smooth and elastic, 8-10 minutes. Place the dough in an oiled bowl. Cover; let rise until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.
4. Punch the dough down. Divide in half; form 2 balls. Place 1 ball width-wise on a greased baking sheet; gently flatten it into a cylinder 10 inches long and 5 inches thick. Curve the dough slightly in the center. This is the body of the dove.
5. Pat the other ball of dough into a cylinder roughly the size of the first. Place it crosswise over the middle of the first cylinder to form a cross. These are the wings. Twist the top third of the body to one side; pinch and shape to form the dove's head. Twist the bottom third to the other side; twist the tips of the wings slightly downward.
6. Cover the dove with a sheet of buttered waxed paper and a towel. Let the bread rise in a warm place until almost doubled, about 20 minutes. Do not let it over-rise or the shape will be lost in baking.
7. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Gently brush the dove all over with the egg white; sprinkle the wing tips and tail with the brown sugar. Bake until the bread is golden brown, about 50 minutes. Carefully transfer the bread to a rack to cool.
Per serving: 132 calories, 4 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 46 mg cholesterol, 20 g carbohydrates, 3 g protein, 71 mg sodium, 1 g fiber.
Prep: 25 minutes
Cook: 8-10 minutes per batch
Makes: about 130 cookies
Note: This recipe comes from pastry chef Natalie Zarzour. Double zero flour (00 flour) is available at Italian import and other specialty stores. It produces a fine and delicate texture in pastry dough. It can be substituted with cake flour.
2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon lemon extract
Grated zest of 8 lemons, juice reserved for glaze
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup milk
5 3/4 cups 00 flour or cake flour
1 tablespoon baking soda
2 teaspoons baking powder
1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the eggs, butter, sugar, lemon extract, lemon zest and salt in a mixing bowl; cream them together until light and silky. Add the milk and 2 cups flour; mix just until incorporated.
2. Place the remaining 3 3/4 cups flour in a separate bowl; mix in the baking powder and baking soda. Add to the creamed mixture; mix just until the dough comes together. If using a stand mixer, stop a few times to scrape the bowl by hand.
3. Use a small scoop to portion dough balls that are the diameter of a quarter. Place on greased baking sheets. Bake, 8 minutes per batch. Cookies will be very moist inside and quite pale. Allow to cool at least an hour at room temperature before glazing.
Per cookie: 55 calories, 2 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 11 mg cholesterol, 9 g carbohydrates, 1 g protein, 59 mg sodium, 0 g fiber.
For the glaze:
Strain the reserved lemon juice. Combine it with an egg white. Add in enough powdered sugar to make a slightly thick syrupy glaze, about 5 cups. Dip each cookie to coat. (You will have extra glaze.) Let cookies dry on a cooling rack set over a tray until dry.
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