Over the past month, I’ve felt like something — a certain sweetness — has been missing in my life. This week, I put my finger on it: For the first time in nearly a decade, my lead-up to Easter has not included a daily dose of colomba di Pasqua.
Colomba di Pasqua, or “Easter dove,” is a rich, fluffy Italian cake that feels more like an artisanal gem than dessert. The seasonal treat was created in Milan, the northern city that is home to the similar Christmastime favorite, panettone. The cake’s namesake dove shape symbolizes peace, though food historians don’t 100 percent know why.
In one version, the colomba marks the 1176 Lombardian victory over the Holy Roman Empire, when two doves miraculously appeared on the battleground; a great feast with dove-shaped cakes followed.
Another legend suggests that the peace-inspiring cake was first baked in the sixth century by a young girl, successfully pacifying the wretched King Albion of the Lombard tribe, who was demanding tribute from her hometown of Pavia. He loved the colomba so much that he set her free and spared Pavia.
The tales most connected to Easter suggest either that the dove represents the Holy Spirit or, on the pagan side, is a harbinger of spring.
Whatever the true story is, I can tell you that this cake is worth its legion of legends.
To make colomba, expert bakers work for more than 30 hours. They combine high-quality flour, farm-fresh eggs, butter, sugar and natural yeast into a dough. After it has cured, the dough is shaped into its trademark dove form, slowly baked and topped with almonds and pearl sugar.
The masterpiece is then wrapped in vibrant paper and showcased in bakery windows until its starring moment at the traditional big Easter lunch.
In theory, Italians break Lent fasts with Easter feasts and thus only indulge in colomba once a year; in practice, at least for me, both living in Italy and then working for Eataly, an Italian food company, the cake comes out much earlier.
In the weeks before Easter, I probably would eat a slice of colomba a day — a bite at so-and-so’s desk, another after lunch, another with the late-afternoon espresso.
My newfound lack of colomba is probably much healthier. But still, I miss my yearly tradition — and I have not been able to find the artisanal cake in Sheridan County. So, this Easter, I am going to channel my inner Italian baker and rise to the occasion.
COLOMBA DI PASQUA
Recipe adapted from Academia Barilla
1 pound all-purpose flour
5 ounces butter
4 ½ ounces sugar
1 ¾ ounces fresh yeast
5 ounces mixed candied orange rind, optional
Almonds, to taste
Pearl sugar, to taste
⅛ ounces salt
Dissolve the yeast in a little warm water and slowly work in half of the flour; allow the dough to rise in a warm place in a floured bowl for up to 15 hours.
When the dough has doubled in size, place it in a larger bowl and add the remaining flour, beaten eggs, melted butter, sugar and salt.
Work the dough gently until it stops sticking to the sides of the bowl, cover with a cloth and allow to rise for another two hours.
Sprinkle flour on the candied peel, then shake excess flour away in a sieve.
Add the candied peel to the dough, place in a dove-shaped mold and decorate with almonds, baste with beaten egg and sprinkle with pearl sugar.
Bake in a moderate oven (375°F) for 20-25 minutes, until the cake is golden brown and cooked all the way through. Enjoy!