Last updated on March 1st, 2020
Dio dà il pane a chi non ha i denti. (God gives bread to those who have no teeth.)
With Easter Sunday approaching, I’ve had bread on the brain.
While Jews are fasting this week for Passover and eat unleavened matzoh crackers, Italians go carb crazy with at least four distinct breads made solely for Easter.
The most popular Easter bread is traditional sweet braided bread studded with colored Easter eggs.
My mother always made the bread in tandem with our annual afternoon of egg dyeing, while my brother and I fought to the death over the wire egg dipper that came in the decorating. (Seriously, egg coloring manufacturers, would it kill you to throw in a couple of those things?)
The brightest eggs would proudly bejewel Mom’s bread, which we couldn’t cut into until after Easter mass. Somewhere in the midst of the priests admonishing the twice-a year churchgoers, I’d start dreaming about it.
Sitting in the kitchen following Mass, still wearing my white shoes, I’d quietly nibble around the pink dye that the egg leaked onto the bread itself.
Italians aren’t the only ones who make braided Easter bread. Contributor Natalie Hoch gave us a gorgeous recipe for braided Swiss bread, which suits the Easter version perfectly with the addition of colored eggs.
For those with a sweet tooth, there’s Columba Pasquale, or Italian dove bread. It’s a rich, sweet yeasted bread stuffed with candied fruits and topped with almonds and sugar.
On the savory side, many Italians bake Torta Pasqualina, a Ligurian Easter pie made with flaky pastry, chard, ricotta cheese, parmigiano, and at least five whole eggs.
But my grandmother made the absolute best Italian Easter bread.
Pizza Chiena, which many Italian-Americans and Sopranos fans might know as “Pizza Gain” because of the Neapolitan accent, is a labor intensive, expensive, not-for-any-ol’-day, invite-people-over-to-help-you event that is absolutely worth your time and effort. It can be a religious exercise unto itself.
My mother recalls helping to make the Pizza Gain as a child on Good Friday—a day of fasting—and how torturous it was not to pop a piece of ham or salami in her mouth.
Being that Nana always cooked from memory, it’s often hard to replicate that which she did with such ease.
But this Italian Easter bread recipe, adapted from Arthur Schwartz’s cookbook Naples at Table: Cooking in Campania, comes very close. The main addition is that of rice, which gave Nana’s Pizza Chiena the most incredible texture.
- 3 cups (360 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
- 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon instant yeast
- 2 tablespoons cold vegetable shortening or lard, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
- 3 large eggs, lightly beaten
- 1/2 cup milk
- baking spray, butter, or olive oil for greasing the bowl
- 1/2 pound hot Italian sausage, removed from casings
- 1/2 pound sweet Italian sausage, removed from casings
- 1/2 pound soppressata, chopped if sliced or diced into 1/4-inch cubes
- 1/4 pound pepperoni, chopped if sliced or diced into 1/4-inch cubes
- 1/4 pound prosciutto, chopped if sliced or diced into 1/4-inch cubes
- 1 1/2 pounds whole milk ricotta cheese
- 1/2 pound whole milk mozzarella cheese, shredded or diced into 1/4-inch cubes
- 1/2 cup (40 grams) grated Parmesan cheese
- 1/2 cup chopped parsley
- 1/2 cup (85 grams) cooked white rice
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper or more to taste
- 3 large eggs, lightly beaten
- egg wash, cream, or whole milk for brushing on the crust
- baking spray, butter, or olive oil for greasing the pan
Make the dough:
- Stir the flour, sugar, yeast, and salt together in a large bowl or in the bowl of a stand mixer.
- Using your hands or the stand mixer paddle attachment, add the vegetable shortening or lard piece by piece until the flour is moist and pebbly.
- Mix in the eggs and milk until incorporated.
- Turn the dough onto a floured surface and knead by hand, or switch to the dough hook attachment and knead until the dough is smooth and silky, about 8 minutes by hand or 4 minutes in the mixer.
- Grease a clean, large bowl.
- Shape the dough into a ball, place in the bowl, and cover with plastic wrap or a clean, non-terrycloth towel.
- Let the dough rise until doubled in size, about 1 1/2 hours.
- Punch down the dough and let it rise for 1 hour more.
Make the filling:
- While the dough is on its second rise, brown the sausage meat in a large skillet over medium heat.
- Break the meat into smaller chunks with a spatula, and cook until no pink is visible.
- Allow to cool.
- When the sausage has cooled, mix with the soppressata, pepperoni, prosciutto, ricotta, mozzarella, Parmesan, parsley, rice, black pepper, and beaten eggs. The filling will be thick but workable—stir slowly until all ingredients are combined.
Assemble the pie:
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F and grease a 9-inch or 9 1/2-inch springform pan.
- Divide the dough into two portions: 2/3 of the dough and 1/3 of the dough.
- On a clean, lightly floured surface, roll out the larger piece of dough until it's thin and large enough to fully cover the bottom and sides of the springform pan with about an inch of overhang.
- Line the pan with the dough and fill with the meat and cheese filling.
- Roll out the second piece of dough until it's about 10 inches in diameter.
- Place the second piece of dough on top of the filling and crimp the edges together.
- Brush the top of the pie with egg wash, cream, or whole milk.
- Use a sharp knife to make six 3-inch slits in the top of the pie.
- Bake for 1 hour, until the pie is golden brown. If the top is browning too quickly, tent it loosely with aluminum foil.
- Let the pie cool in the pan until you're ready to serve it.
The bread can be made a day in advance. Let it cool completely, then cover with foil and refrigerate.
Reheat in a 350-degree oven, 30-45 minutes for the entire bread and 15 minutes for individual slices. Leave the foil on if reheating the whole thing so the crust doesn't burn.