Makes Two 1 1/2-Pound Loaves
How wonderful the unexpected can be. Such was the case with a visit to Montagnana, a town south of Padua, which bears witness to Venetian rule, when it was changed from a military outpost to an important trading center. In the thirteenth century, the Da Carrara ruling family built the exquisite and beautifully preserved medieval walls that wrap around the town. The remains of the ancient moat that also afforded protection are still visible as well. Steeped in tradition, Montagnana is known for its palio, a horse race held since the fourteenth century, and for its delicate prosciutto, along with a very special bread. Legend states that one Ezzelino III da Romano, who was the emperor's vicar in Italy and a skillful soldier, saved the town from a great fire but in doing so was badly injured. A country woman make a dough with leva, a natural yeast, to which she added lots of honey, walnuts, and hazelnuts from her orchard, and made a sweet bread that restored the health and strength of Ezzelino. The recipe that follows is an adaptation of pandolce di Ezzelino, the sweet bread that is synonymous with Montagnana. Today it is made and sold by Giorgio Cuccato, owner of Pasticerria Cuccato, Via Porta 64. With his father, Bruno, Giorgio has researched the history of this recipe for which the citizens of Montagnana are deeply grateful. The life of this bread begins with a sponge or starter made from a little yeast, flour, and honey that is left to rise for 3 hours. The sponge helps the dough to rise beautifully.
1/2 cup warm water
1/4 teaspoon dry active yeast
1/2 cup King Arthur™ Unbleached, All-Purpose Flour
1 teaspoon honey
1 cup warm water (110ºF)
1 teaspoon dry active yeast
1/3 cup honey
3 large eggs
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2 teaspoons salt
5 1/2 to 6 cups King Arthur™ Unbleached, All-Purpose Flour
1/4 cup chopped hazelnuts
1/4 cup chopped walnuts
2 tablespoons coarse brown sugar (turbinado or Demerara)
Early on the day you plan to make the bread, combine the sponge ingredients in a medium-size bowl. Stir well. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and set aside for 3 hours. When the sponge is ready it will have increased three times in volume and look fluffy, with lots of small holes on the surface like the holes of a sponge.
To make the dough, in a heavy-duty mixer or food processor, combine the water, yeast, and honey and allow to proof for 5 minutes. The mixture will look chalky.
On low speed, blend in all of the sponge mixture.
In a small bowl, lightly beat 2 of the eggs and add them to the yeast-sponge mixture.
On low speed, mix in the butter, salt, and 1 cup of the flour. Increase the speed to medium and mix well. Continue adding the flour 1 cup at a time, mixing each addition in well before adding the next. You may not need all the flour. When the dough begins to leave the sides of the bowl, increase the speed to high and beat for 4 minutes. Feel the dough. It should feel soft but not stick to your hands. If it is too sticky, add a little more flour until it reaches the right consistency.
Remove the dough from the mixer or processor and knead it a few times on a work surface. Spray a large bowl with vegetable or butter spray, place the dough in the bowl, and cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap. Allow the dough to rise for 3 hours.
Punch down the dough and turn it out onto a work surface. Stretch it out with your hands. Scatter the nuts over the dough, then fold the dough over several times to enclose the nuts. Cut the dough in half with a knife and knead each piece into a tight ball about 5 inches in diameter. Some of the nuts should be visible on the outside of the loaf.
Place each round on a lightly greased cookie sheet; cover each with a clean towel and allow the breads to rise for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until nearly doubled in size.
Preheat the over to 375ºF.
Lightly beat the remaining egg in a small bowl. Brush each loaf with the beaten egg. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of the coarse sugar over each loaf.
With a clean razor blade make an X incision about 3 inches long in the top of each loaf and fold back the four cuts. This will allow for air to escape and prevent the loaves from splitting.
Bake the loaves until nicely browned on top and bottom, about 40 to 45 minutes, or until an instant-read thermometer registers 200ºF when inserted in the center of the loaf.
Remove the loaves to a cooling rack.
Note: These loaves freeze well if wrapped tightly in aluminum foil and then in heavy-duty plastic bags.
Variation: Make four smaller loaves to give as kitchen gifts. Wrap each loaf in clear cellophane and tie with a ribbon.
This recipe is from CIAO ITALIA - BRINGING ITALY HOME by Mary Ann Esposito, published by St. Martin's Press in 2001.
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