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Colomba Pasquale is an Easter bread (or cake) from Italy, and is rather like an intensely orangey panettone, baked in the shape of a dove, and topped with a crunchy coating of almonds and sugar. It’s increasingly available for sale in the UK, and I have always found it delicious. However I could not resist the challenge of trying to make it for myself. It’s not the easiest or quickest of recipes, but the end result is immensely rewarding.

Method

Makes one large loaf in a 1kg colomba case

Stage 1: The Sponge

  • 70g strong white flour
  • 10g quick action yeast
  • 15g sugar
  • 120g warm water
  • 3 large egg yolks

Mix the flour with the sugar and yeast then gradually stir in the eggs and water. Mix to a smooth batter, cover and leave for about 30 minutes

Stage 2: The First Dough

  • All of the sponge
  • 75g warm water
  • 45g soft unsalted butter
  • 210g strong white flour
  • 3g quick action yeast

Stir the water into the sponge, followed by the butter. Mix the flour with the yeast and stir it in well. Cover and leave till doubled in volume, which could take anything from 1 to 3 hours.

Stage 3: The Second Dough

  • All of the first dough
  • 145g sugar
  • 15g honey
  • 3 large egg yolks
  • Grated zest of 2 medium oranges
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon Aroma Veneziana
  • 115g soft unsalted butter
  • 250g strong white flour
  • 5g fine salt
  • 150g candied orange peel (preferably cut up yourself from large pieces)

Mix the sugar, honey, egg yolks, vanilla, aroma veneziana, orange zest and butter into the first dough. Then add the flour and salt and mix until well combined. Scrape out onto an unfloured surface and work for 10 minutes until soft and elastic, though still quite sticky. Towards the end of the working, flatten the dough out and scatter the peel over the top. Fold the dough back over and continue working for a while to distribute the peel.

Place the dough in a bowl with a teaspoon of oil and turn it over to coat it. Cover and leave to rise until tripled in size. This could take anything from 3 to 12 hours.

Stage 4: Forming the Dove

Scrape the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and cut into two. Pat each piece out to an oblong and roll up into a sausage, one long enough to stretch from the head to tail of the dove, the other to form the wings. Put the wings in the case first, followed by the body.

Press the dough down so it reaches the edges of the case and the two sausages more or less merge. Put the case on a baking tray, cover and leave to rise until doubled in size. This could take 3-6 hours.

Stage 5: Topping and Baking

  • 80g ground almonds
  • 80g vanilla icing sugar (or ordinary if you don’t have the vanilla variety)
  • 1-2 egg whites
  • 40-50g whole unblanched almonds
  • 40-50g nibbed or pearl sugar or crushed sugar lumps

When the dough has doubled in size and is about 1.5cm from the top of the case, make the topping. Mix the ground almonds and icing sugar and stir in enough egg white to make a paste that will spread easily over the cake but will not run. A consistency like thick porridge is ideal.

Spoon the paste in about 6 dollops over the top of the dough, then spread it out almost to the edges, pressing gently so as not to deflate the dough. Scatter the whole almonds over the top followed by the nibbed sugar. Dust with a little icing sugar.

Bake at 200C / 400F / Gas Mark 6 (adjusted for fan oven) for 10 minutes, and then reduce the temperature to 180C / 350F / Gas Mark 4 (adjusted for fan). Bake for 30-50 minutes more. Check the cake every 10 minutes and turn it if is browning unevenly. If the topping is browning too quickly, carefully tuck some foil over and around it.

After 40 minutes, start testing to see if it is ready by inserting a long fine skewer at several points in the middle of the cake, right down to the bottom. Take the cake out of the oven when the skewer comes out clean (but see note below).

Cool on a wire rack.

The Verdict

This is a lovely thing. It looks spectacular both outside and in, with its bejewelled top and golden yellow crumb flecked with orange. It smells and tastes exquisite, and its rich and indefinable flavour will linger in your mouth long after you’ve eaten it.

You might want to invite an army of people round to help you polish it off, as it is very big, and does not keep as well as the bought variety. But after 3-4 days, when it seems a little stale, it still makes delicious, fragrant toast. I suspect you could make a fantastic bread and butter pudding with it as well.

But I can’t deny that it is not a recipe for the faint hearted! Or for the impatient for that matter. I started at 6:00 on Friday evening, and removed the loaf from the oven 18 hours later, at noon on Saturday. But the vast majority of that time is spent waiting for the dough to rise, so you can be getting on with other things.

The only really difficult part is telling when it is done. The crust does not give you any clue as to the state of the inside, and you obviously cannot tap the bottom. I found that despite the skewer coming out clean in 4 places, the cake was still bordering on uncooked in the middle. Maybe the thing to do is to give it an extra 5-10 minutes after it passes the skewer test.

Would I make it again? Would I suggest you give it a go? Definitely!

Notes

If the time taken for the various risings is inconvenient, you could manage it to some extent, giving the dough a boost by putting it somewhere warm like the airing cupboard, or slowing it down by putting it in the fridge.

I have never seen vanilla icing sugar on sale, but you can easily make your own. Simply put a vanilla pod in an airtight container filled with icing sugar. It may go lumpy, but it can easily be sieved. You also can use a vanilla pod from which you have previously scraped the seeds.

If you can’t find candied orange peel, or not in whole pieces, you could use ready chopped mixed peel. It just won’t taste quite as good.

My principal source for this recipe was The Italian Baker by Carol Field. I followed Patrick of Bakery Bits in adding some Aroma Veneziana, though I used less than he suggested. Lastly I got a number of very useful tips from a recipe on an Italian site, Giallo Zafferano. This alerted me to the true time the recipe was likely to take to complete, and also had the perfect formula for the topping.

The colomba cases, aroma veneziana and nibbed sugar can be obtained from Bakery Bits.