A Tradition of Easter Bread Baking, Italian Style

Photo by Lorelle Del Matto

Pan di Ramarino  

I can’t celebrate Easter without baking a festive yeast bread as is the tradition in many European countries.  When I headed up the test kitchens for Fleischmann’s Yeast, the phone lines lit up for weeks before Easter as bakers called in with questions about how to recreates their great aunt’s or grandma’s traditional  holiday bread.  The test kitchen home economists perfected many of these lovely recipes, from Hot Cross Buns,  Polish Babka, Romanian and Czech Easter Breads to tall iced Russian Kulich, to name just a few.  

In times past, these breads, enriched with butter, eggs, dried fruit and nuts, were integral to feasting following Lent, during which devout Christians abstained from such special ingredients, often barring animal products of any type. Not just a “loaf,” Easter bread may be shaped into a cross, wreath, basket or animals such as doves, lambs or rabbits, a tradition dating back to pre-Christian times when Easter was a celebration of spring.  Today a cross, cut into the bread or drizzled on top with icing, symbolizes the crucifixion of Jesus but to the pre-Christian Roman bakers a cross on bread represented the four quarters of the moon.   

 Eggs, a symbol of life in many cultures, are used both in an on breads.   Usually I twist together ropes of sweet egg dough, form it into a wreath and decorate it with colored hard-cooked eggs. 

Photo by Lorelle Del Matto

 If you try this, for food safety reasons, form egg shapes out of pieces foil and coat them with nonstick spray. Then place them in the shaped dough, let the bread rise a final time and bake.  Remove the foil eggs after baking and replace with dyed, cooked eggs just before serving.  Even cooked eggs should not be left at room temperature for over two hours.

 This year I’m serving Pan di Ramerino, an Italian version of hot cross buns made in Tuscany and eaten in the Easter season, especially on Holy Thursday.  The bread is mildly sweet, with rosemary, olive oil, and raisins so it can be served at brunch or dinner.  The orange zest is my addition – a flavor that marries well with rosemary.  I also add mashed potato which makes a moist, silky-textured loaf without loads of oil.  A cross is cut in the top of the loaves just before baking.  Before serving, brush with a top-quality extra virgin olive oil for flavor and shine.

 Pan di Ramerino with Orange (Tuscan Easter Loaf with Rosemary and Raisins)

 I mix the dough in a bread machine, then shape it by hand and bake it in a conventional oven.   You can also mix the dough by hand (directions follow). Keep leftover mashed potatoes in the freezer for adding to bread dough.  You can also make this into one large loaf instead of two. 

 1 to 1 1/4 cups water

1/2 cup cooked mashed potato

3 tablespoons olive oil, divided use

1 teaspoon table salt

2 cups white whole wheat flour

2 cups all-purpose flour

4 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary

1 tablespoon finely grated orange zest

2 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast

1/2 cup golden or dark raisins

 In a 2 lb. capacity bread machine pan, combine 1 cup of water, potato, 2 tablespoons olive oil, salt, whole wheat and all-purpose flours, rosemary, orange zest and yeast as manufacturer directs. Process on the dough cycle, adding raisins partially through mixing or as manufacturer directs for adding “mix ins.”  After a couple of minutes of mixing, open the lid and check the dough. It should form a soft, smooth ball around the blade. If it is too dry or the machine is straining, add additional water, a tablespoon at a time. (If dough is very wet you can also add flour, a tablespoon at a time, but for best texture keep the dough on the moist side.)  Remove dough to lightly floured surface.  Form into 2 balls.  Place balls on a large oiled baking sheet and flatten each slightly.  Brush lightly with olive oil.  Cover and let rise in a warm place until almost doubled in size.  Cut a cross in top of each loaf.  Bake in a preheated 375° oven for 25 to 30 minutes or until done.  (Internal temperature of dough measured with instant-read thermometer reads 200°.) Cool on wire rack.  Brush loaves with remaining tablespoon of olive oil before serving.  Makes 2 small (about 7-inch diameter) loaves. 

 To mix by hand: In a large bowl, mix the flours with the instant yeast.  Separately, mix 1 cup of water, potato, oil, salt, rosemary and orange zest. Slowly mix the liquids into the flour mixture to form a ball, adding additional water as needed to make a soft dough.  On a lightly floured surface, knead in raisins, then continue kneading dough to form a smooth, elastic dough.  (This could take 5 to 10 minutes.)  Place in a clean, oiled bowl.  Oil top of dough, cover bowl and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size.  Shape, let rise and bake as directed. 



Hot Cross Buns, by Greg Atkinson, Seattle Times. April 5, 1998. 


Copyright © Lorelle S Del Matto 2012

lorelle About lorelle

Crazy about cooking, eating and sharing good food – my work and leisure revolve around the kitchen. As a culinary dietitian my professional life encompasses nutrition counseling and education, recipe development, product development, food and nutrition writing, marketing communications, corporate test kitchen and consumer affairs management, food styling and work as a product spokesperson.


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  1. […] recipes for several of my books over the years), owner of Food Savvy with Lorelle Del Matto, and blogger. Martha is Director of Nutrition Affairs at the Washington State Dairy […]

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