Easter is in the air! As any celebration, it is accompanied by traditional recipes to make our feast more enjoyable. In Canada, hot cross buns, probably an English legacy, are a must for Easter. In Italy, we have many traditional recipes, which differ from region to region. Pizza di Pasqua and Easter’s pie are typical in central part of Italy, but the most popular cake is definitely Colomba.
As a baking lover, every Easter I pedantically prepare both hot cross buns and colomba. The buns are not too tricky and I face them with the spirit of a walk in the park :D
But colomba is different...Colomba relates to Easter as panettone does to Christmas. As a very demanding cake, colomba make me particularly anxious. When it comes to colomba, you can’t improvise: organization is crucial. You must find the right ingredients, in particular the proper flour, and most importantly, the time to make it (2 days of work, still better than panettone that requires 3 days…). But the most demanding task is getting rid of that unpleasant thought: will I get the dough right?
The key for a proper dough is the development of a solid gluten net. Without that, the dough doesn’t rise and trap the gas developed during the leavening. In a few words, the dough collapses. Gluten is not present in the dough as such, it develops during kneading by the association of two proteins: glutenin and gliadin. Gluten is like the scaffold of your dough, keep that in mind.
Below, I listed 5 tips to obtain a good dough and transform our doubts in a great success. If you are a beginner, these tips will be helpful to make your first colomba. If you are already pros, you can ship the list and wait for the recipe :)
1. The type of flour
As in the case of panettone, you need a strong flour (about 15% proteins). In Italy, you should be able to find a lot of special flours, but you can still stay with the Manitoba type, available in all grocery stores. Here, I have a problem to find very strong flours (or...any idea where?), so I have the habit to correct my all-purpose with some gluten flour (72% proteins). Please, do not cheat: if you do not use the right flour, you will end up with a weak dough that most probably will head to the garbage :P Selecting the proper flour is, however, just the starting point to the perfect dough.
When preparing leavened baking products, the fat matter (butter, oil) should be added towards the end of the kneading. At this point, the gluten net is already formed. Adding fats from the very first moment might compromise the formation of gluten and, consequently, the development of the dough. Often, I did the mistake of adding oil or butter to all the other ingredients from the beginning, for example, in the preparation of pizza or brioche. Luckily, that didn’t screw my recipe. But panettone and colomba are too complex and certain errors must be avoided. Therefore, here the rule of thumb: add the butter towards the end of kneading, when the dough is almost ready.
3. The kneading machine
I personally use the Kitchen Aid kneader that I love. Anyway, there are other excellent kneading machine from other brands. A kneading machine gives you a crucial help in the preparation of a complex dough, as that of panettone or colomba. Kneading a colomba dough by hand is a major challenge, in particular, in the last steps, when you have to incorporate the butter :P If you don’t feel as buying a kneader, consider borrowing. With a kneading machine, it is easier to understand if you got the dough right. When the gluten net is well developed, the dough starts to wrap around the kneading hook. This detail suggests that the dough is ready and well made. Now, you understand that it is much harder to guess the formation of the gluten net by manual kneading. Not to mention that kneading manually this type of dough is a significant workout (unless, you look forward to… ;))
4. Leavening temperature
Ideally, we should split the dough in the baking mold and let it rise around 26-27˚C, under controlled humidity. Unfortunately, most of us does not have professional leavening cells. However, we can get around that by using a few tricks. I personally let the colomba leaven into the oven, set on bread proof (a bit above 30˚C). If your oven doesn’t have that function, you can place them in the oven with the light on for the entire leavening time. These techniques are a bit rudimentary, but they work. Certain yeasts start to suffer already around 34-35˚C, while at 45-50˚C they are totally destroyed. Therefore, I recommend you do not go above 34-35˚C.
5. Drying and cooling down
Fortunately, colomba does not require to dry and cool down as panettone. If you read my post on panettone, you might remember that I had to skewer it with wood sticks and put it upside down for an entire night, just to let it cool down. If you miss that step, your panettone might collapse. Life is easier with colomba, as this practice is not required. However, if you have any doubt or you have the feeling the cake might collapse, just skewer it and let it cool upside down.
Thursday, we will see how to make colomba! :)
Leonardo Di Carlo, Tradizione in Evoluzione, Chiriotti Editori