I am unduly proud of the appearance of a loaf of Italian Easter Cheese Bread I made last weekend. Left-click on the picture a couple of times to see the bread in its full-resolution glory, complete with Parmegiano cross and volcanic lava-flows of Gruyere and Provolone escaping from the egg-washed top crust. When I pulled that bread out of the oven (and removed it from the olive-oiled pie plate in which I baked it) I was shocked, astounded, surprised -- and absolutely delighted. It looks just like what a loaf of bread should look like, when you remove it with your flat wooden paddle from the baking stone of your hearth. How on earth did that happen?
You see, I don't do very well with dough, which is a sadness because I am exceptionally fond of breads and pies and various forms of baked goods. But there always comes a time when everything seems to go wrong for me and my shoulders tense up and I scream profanities at the cutting board. Once my upstairs neighbor Stephen, who is a genius with dough, came walking down the back steps outside my kitchen just at this moment; he poked his head in worriedly, looked at my pie crust that would not become a pie crust, calmly said "two tablespoons more flour", and continued on his way. What happens for me is that the dough will not knead into the proper smoothness, perhaps. Or the pizza won't stretch properly. Or the pie crust won't roll out. Or I look at the bowl of flour and butter I am trying to work together and wonder what the texture of corn meal is anyway and will this ever come to that stage.
Strangely enough, everything does seem to come out just fine in the end. The worrisome scones are always delicious. The bread may be heavier than I might have hoped for, but it always has the fine yeasty undertone of proper homebaked. Oh, it's true that a pie crust that has been re-kneaded and re-rolled three or four times will resemble a cookie in texture more than a flaky pastry, but if you mix butter and flour and cook a nice custard or good quiche inside of it people will be delighted. Nobody ever in my presence (even when I wasn't the baker) has taken a bite of homemade pie or quiche and said, "But this crust doesn't flake well! Take it away!". Nope, they gobble it down ask for another piece. Shortbread is shortbread. Always use butter.
I was inspired to try making this bread when my friends Jim and Denise invited me and few other good friends over for Easter dinner. Jim is a fine cook, and my role is to provide the wine plus cheese and smoked fish for appetizer. Then a few days in advance of Easter the New York Times published an article on Easter baked goods that included a recipe for a cheese egg bread they called Pizza al Formaggio. It looked wonderful, if labor-intensive, but I had a Saturday afternoon to play with and I really wanted to try making it, to bring to the dinner as well.
This bread includes about a quarter pound each of fresh-grated Parmegiano-Reggiano, fresh-grated Pecorino Romano, Provolone, and Gruyere. If you know what good imported cheese costs you will realize (as I ultimately did) that this would be the most expensive loaf of bread in the state of Minnesota (a fact that the accompanying article didn't even hint at, this being the New York Times). But it's a special occasion, a holiday bread.
My first problem had nothing to do with dough at all, but with these instructions: "Use a 7-inch-deep panettone mold, a 9-inch baking pan or an oven-proof paper panettone mold." Why sure, I have an oven-proof paper panettone mold right here in the pantry; doesn't everyone? There was no accompanying illustration to show what a panetonne mold looks like (and I have no Internet at home), so I was stuck with using a "9-inch baking pan". Do you see the problem? Hint: A baking pan has three dimensions. I can make do if you give me only two of them. But one? I threw up my hands (which were not yet gloved with fast-drying sticky flour -- that step comes later) and used a 9.5 inch pie plate. The irony? It was baking this in the pie plate that yielded the amazing beautiful artisanal loaf shape.
I had my usual share of battles with the dough. There are a few kneadings, but for the final knead you are supposed to knead the dough two or three minutes until "the dough is soft and elastic". What this means is "knead with all the strength you can muster for 10 minutes or more while adding several more tablespoons of flour until the dough is soft and elastic." Otherwise the dough will remain tough and sticky and refuse to stretch into a large rectangle. The recipe calls for you to "stretch dough into a rectangle about 10 by 15 inches." What this means is "pound the dough into a rectangle and try not to give up and throw it away when it refuses to stretch evenly and don't worry if you have to re-form the dough and re-knead a couple of times because the final bread will look and taste beautiful anyway".
Oh, and the dough never rose until it doubled in size, although it certainly puffed right up beautifully when placed in a hot oven. And when the instructions say "Cheese flavor will become more pronounced if bread is kept wrapped for 6 or more hours or overnight" it doesn't mean in plastic wrap, although I'm not sure how you are supposed to know that offhand. Maybe those instructions are in the secret compartment with the oven-proof paper panettone molds.
The recipe claims this makes 8 servings. More like 20 or 30. And then you have leftover, which makes wonderful rich filling breakfast toast.
Here is me, proud of my bread. If you click twice you can see why the tie is an Easter tie, and you can even tell what wine I am serving with the cheese and smoked fish. This is Jim's kitchen. It has been snowing for two days.
Pictures courtesy Denise