Sarsina (Emilia-Romagna) – Salame, sangiovese, hard-boiled eggs (extra special if they are blessed) and an enormous loaf of artisan sweet bread. Don’t they resemble the victuals of a countryside picnic? These are actually the emblematic foods to be found gracing sarsinati tables on Easter morning, and that beautiful round loaf – la Pagnotta Pasquale – is what will be at the center of all the hoopla at the Sagra della Pagnotta this Sunday (March 16th).
The original recipe published in Vittorio Tonelli’s A tavola con il contadino romagnolo, is said to yield a loaf that stands at 8 inches tall and twice as much across the diameter – enough to feed a large family in the old days. I’ve adapted the recipe in order to work with a new flour, Semola di grano duro rimacinata (twice-milled durum wheat flour) from Altamura.
Recipe for a 2 pound pagnotta
This is essentially a sweet dough that is ideal for rolls, hot cross buns, brioche and the like. Fresh out of the oven, it slices up soft and fragrant but firms to a fine texture the day after. It is a long process, so don’t even try this if you’re in a hurry.
3 cups twice-milled durum wheat flour
1 teaspoon quick-acting yeast
3/4 cup granulated sugar
pinch of salt
7 oz. ready-made pizza dough (a scant 1 cup)
3 tablespoons margarine or lard, softened to room temperature
2 large eggs
grated zest of half a lemon
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 cup warm water
2-3 tablespoons golden raisins, softened in hot water
all-purpose flour for dusting
beaten egg for glaze
Combine flour, yeast, sugar and salt on a work counter. Make a well in the center and add the pizza dough, margarine, eggs, zest, vanilla and water. Mix together until thoroughly combined then continue to knead, dusting the surface with all-purpose when necessary, until the dough is well-developed. Squeeze the raisins of excess water and gently knead them into the dough until the surface is smooth and elastic. By hand this took more or less 15 minutes.
Shape dough into a ball and place into a large, lightly-oiled bowl. Cover with a kitchen towel and place next to a heat source (I set mine out on the picnic table in the sun). Allow to rise until doubled in volume – 3 hours.
After the initial rise, punch down dough and repeat until doubled in volume; 1½ to 2 hours. Punch down dough once more and shape into a large round. Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet lightly dusted with flour. Set in a draft-free area and let rise for 1 hour. Preheat oven to 375°F.
Brush the surface with the beaten egg and cut a shallow slit along the upper edge on both sides; place in the preheated oven. As soon as the egg wash has “glazed”, place a folded parchment tent over the loaf to discourage excessive browning of the crust. Bake for 55-60 minutes or until bread sounds hollow when tapped.
Part old tradition, part ritual, this easter loaf embraces familial history as it owes its humble beginnings to the nurturing creators – the mothers – from which all beloved things come. I admire the expertise of women working in the kitchen (we all have our personal favorites!), but in this clip taken at the Sagra della Pagnotta 2006, the little nonna proves that with age comes finesse. You just gotta love her – she is working that dough!