Easter is round the corner! In my home country of Argentina, everyone celebrates religious holidays like Palm Sunday, Easter, and Christmas, even if you’re not particularly religious. With the heavy Catholic influence from Spain and Italy since the very origins of the settlements on the River Plate, a lot of Catholic traditions have become embedded in the local life and culture, and Easter is one such holiday. As many of you know, Italian is the most common ethnic origin of modern Argentines, after Spanish colonization. Some say up to 30 million Argentines have some degree of Italian ancestry! And so it is that Italian food and culture left their mark on many customs in Argentina, as well as on our food and celebrations, including Easter. Not many know that Italians started arriving in Argentina in large numbers between 1857 and 1940, surpassing the entire post-colonial immigration from any other country including Spain, which is really something! So, Italian culture formed a backbone of today’s Argentine society in terms of language, customs, and traditions. Italian cuisine, fashion, and lifestyle have shaped Argentina to the present day, including affecting the way Argentines speak in Spanish. Unlike the rest of Latin America, Argentine castellano is often spoken with an intonation pattern that resembles Italian dialects, especially the Neapolitan language. But perhaps nothing speaks about the Italian influence as strongly as their legacy in Argentine cuisine.
Truthfully, the typical Argentine diet is a variation on the Mediterranean diet. Pasta is ubiquitous, and Argentine ice cream resembles Italian gelato a lot more than traditional ice cream. Italians, like the Spanish, are Catholic, and even if an Argentine family is not particularly religious, the whole country tends to observe the religious holidays of Easter and Christmas and all the accompanying foods to celebrate them, as they are so embedded in the local culture, and this brings me to today’s recipe. In Argentina, Easter represents a time to spend with family, and every year during Semana Santa (Holy Week), thousands of Argentines make a pilgrimage to Tandil. Most Argentines refrain from eating meat on Fridays during Lent and on the days leading up to Easter, starting on Holy Thursday. On Easter Sunday, Pascua/Domingo de Resurreción, most families in Argentina gather to celebrate with asado, with lamb being a popular choice, followed by decorated hollow chocolate eggs and Rosca de Pascua. Note the similarities with the traditional Easter table in Italy, which has three principal dishes of lamb, eggs, and Pane di Pasqua, all of them highly symbolic foods: the lamb symbolized Christ, the eggs symbolized renewal of life and resurrection, and the Pane di Pasqua symbolized Christ’s sustenance to the believers.
This traditional Italian Easter bread, or Pane di Pasqua, is slightly sweet and bursting with the citrusy flavor of lemon. Like many Easter breads around the world, the Pane di Pasqua carries a lot of symbolism, with the eggs speaking to the nature of new life and the bread as an allusion to Christ, “the Bread of Life.” When you crack the egg open, it represents the Resurrection. It is definitely a celebration bread that marks the ending of the fast of Lent, when households would traditionally refrain from rich and sweet dishes.
Inspired by this, I made Pane di Pasqua, an enriched bread similar to brioche that is weaved into beautiful wreaths or nests and studded with colorful eggs.
I love this Pane di Pasqua recipe because it is so wonderfully fluffy and lightly sweet. It has a burst of bright lemon, which is perfect for spring and its presentation is so picturesque. The eggs bake in the oven together with the bread, so even though they are colorful and decorative, they are actually edible too and, along with the bread, make for a robust Easter brunch! The best part is that the wreaths look so impressive, but they are not hard to make. I would note, though, that it is best to try and work this recipe ahead. The leavening process has 4 half-hour segments prior to incorporating the butter, which I found to be critical for the resulting texture. While it seems like a lot of leavening and checking on the bread, it truly pays off, and all you have to do is set a timer. The process, in and of itself, is not laborious. It just spreads over time a bit. I omitted the anise, which is found in most traditional recipes. I wanted the lemon flavor to shine.
You will love this traditional Italian Easter bread! Even if we are still dealing with the pandemic and many households still are not able to gather with their families this Easter, making this bread can be a way of marking this special weekend and having something to share with friends and relatives, even if we are not all gathered around the same table. Don’t you think the wreaths look a little bit like a fancy bird’s nest? The pastel colors of the eggs nestled in the braided bread are a lovely addition to the Easter brunch table. You don’t have to sprinkle it with nonpareils, but they do add a celebratory touch and lots of color. I feel like after the monochromatic palette of winter, spring and Easter encourage us to dress everything up in pastels and bright colors, and I don’t know about you, but it gives me a lot of joy to make everything pretty and colorful. I hope you will have a wonderful weekend, and I hope you will try this recipe!
Pane di Pasqua
Prep time: 20 minutes
Rising time: 6 hours
Cook Time: 18-20 minutes
- 2 ½ cup + 4 tbsp all-purpose flour
- ¼ tsp salt
- Zest of 4 lemons
- ½ cup +4 tbsp sugar
- ½ cup milk, warm
- 3 tsp active dry yeast
- 4 eggs, beaten, at room temperature
- 1 cup butter
- 2 beaten egg and 2 tbsp water (for the egg wash)
- Colorful nonpareils (for topping) (optional)
- 8 dyed Easter eggs, raw not boiled (for topping)
- In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, mix together the dry ingredients: flour, salt, lemon zest, and ½ cup of sugar. (The 4 tbsp sugar are used separately.) Make a well in the center. Set aside.
- In a small bowl, combine the yeast with the 4 tbsp sugar and the warm milk. Let it stand for a few minutes until frothy. Make sure that the milk is not too hot or it will kill the yeast!
- Switch from the whisk attachment to a dough hook. Add the milk and yeast in the well, mixing on low speed.
- Add the 4 eggs, one at a time, and continue mixing to combine, about 1 minute.
- Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a cheesecloth and let rise for 2 hours. Every 30 minutes, 4 times total, fold both ends over the middle and leave to rise again.
- After the last of these 4 folds has risen at least 30 minutes, put the bowl back in the mixer with the dough hook and add the butter, a little at a time, mixing on medium-high speed. Let the dough rest for 10 more minutes, then mix another 5-6 minutes, until completely smooth. The dough should not stick to the sides of the bowl. Transfer the dough to another greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap or a cheesecloth, and refrigerate for 1-2 hours or overnight.
- Transfer the dough to a lightly-floured surface. Cut into 8 parts. Roll each part into 2 ropes, each about 12 inches long. Join two ropes together at one end and twist the ropes over one another, end over end, forming a wreath or circular shape.
- Place the wreaths on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Let rise for 1-2 hours in a warm environment—it can be a good idea to close your kitchen door and turn on the oven to create a warm room.
- Wait until 15 minutes remain for the bread to rise, and then pre-heat the oven to 350°F.
- Add a dyed Easter egg to the center of each wreath. Brush the wreaths with egg wash. Do not brush the eggs. Sprinkle nonpareils on top for color if desired. Bake at 350°F for 18-20 minutes, or until lightly golden on top. Let cool before serving.
- To store, place in an airtight freezer bag, and that will allow them to last another 2 days. Also, please note that the eggs are edible! The eggs cooked while the bread baked, so they are edible, not just decorative.