Mom kneaded by hand ten Easter’s schiacciate, gently fragrant with aniseed and rosolio. She shaped the bread with her hands covered with flour, put them in the traditional brown paper moulds and gave them enough time to rise in her warm kitchen. She lovingly covered the bread with a blanket to keep the schiacciate protected from drafts. My dad helped her to bake the schiacciate in our wood fired oven. One hour later they brought the schiacciate back inside, filling the house with their old fashioned smell.
As soon as I stepped inside I was overwhelmed by the aniseed smell and by a stream of memories: a child, a table too tall for me, a slice of schiacciata and a glass of water. I would dunk the Easter schiacciata, almond biscotti and ciambellone into a glass of cold water. I know it sounds weird, but it is one of my best kept secrets and guilty pleasures.
This year I left the preparation of the Easter schiacciata to my mum and I tried to set a new tradition for us, something markedly Florentine, to celebrate the first holiday that Tommaso and I will spend together in our little house in the countryside. This year I made pan di ramerino.
Pan di ramerino belongs to the Tuscan tradition of sweet breads, enriched with spices, olive oil, raisins, walnuts, black pepper and rosemary, which is ramerino. Just think about the schiacciata, developed from the overabundance of eggs which coincides with the arrival of Spring and Easter, or pan co’ santi, a Sienese sweet bread made for All Saints’ day with a red wine, black pepper, spices, raisins and walnuts. When it’s harvest time, we traditionally knead a sweet schiacciata with sugar, olive oil, rosemary and wine grapes, too.
Tuscan women knew how to use what they had in the house and in the pantry: our bread dough, so versatile as it is made without salt, was gradually enriched with what the season gave or what was left in pantry. The extra virgin olive was always there, as well as lard, a handful of sweet raisins and a hint of spices.
Pan di ramerino is so typical of Florence that it never reached my home town in Valdelsa, yet just one hour drive far. It was made and eaten exclusively during the Holy Week before Easter. Now it is possibile to purchase and enjoy pan di ramerino in many Florentine bakeries throughout the year, but years ago it was on sale just for the Holy Thursday, when it was bought and brought to be blessed in the church.
Its very appearance, a soft bun carved with a cross, recalls this tradition: being it to bless the bread or to help the rising process, being it for faith or superstition, this is the form that has been passed down, from generation to generation.
This is the recipe I learnt in my baking class in Florence. I substituted lard with olive oil. I tried pan di ramerino with butter as well, but olive oil is certainly more authentic, leaves the buns soft for longer and teams up exceptionally well with rosemary.
Raisins are generously added to the bread: they are first soaked in water and vin santo to make them plump and sweet.
While the bread buns rise, brush them twice with an egg wash. This will develop their intense golden brown colour while they bake. As soon as you remove the buns from the oven brush them again with a thick syrup made with sugar, water and half a vanilla bean, which will make the bread shine with sweetness.
Read the recipe carefully and start the day before to make pan di ramerino. I’m not using just fresh brewer’s yeast or sourdough starter, I’m making what in Italy we call biga, a pre fermented dough which will ripe for 24 hours at room temperature: any bread made with biga or poolish is soft, digestible and enriched by a unique flavour and texture. Read more about biga here.
- 200 g of strong flour
- 100 g of lukewarm water
- 2 g of fresh brewer's yeast
- 300 g of the first dough
- 5 g of fresh brewer's yeast
- 800 g of tender wheat flour 300 W
- 100 g of raw cane sugar
- 400 g of lukewarm water
- 20 g of salt
- 180 g of extra virgin olive oil
- 300 g of raisins
- 1 small glass of vinsanto or any sweet wine
- 10 g of rosemary
- 1 egg
- 150 g of sugar
- 150 g of water
- ½ vanilla bean
In a medium bowl dissolve the fresh brewer's yeast with the lukewarm water and mix in the flour until incorporated. Cover the bowl with cling film and leave to mature at room temperature for 20 - 24 hours.
Soak the raisins in vin santo and add some water, enough to cover them. Soak for an hour, then drain and squeeze the raisins.
Chop finely the rosemary and put it in a pan with the olive oil. Heat the olive oil over low heat. As soon as the rosemary begins to fry, turn the heat off. Let it cool down lightly.
Dissolve the fresh brewer's yeast with half of the water. Add the first dough, the flour and the sugar and mix with the dough hook for about 5 minutes, then add the salt and keep kneading adding the water slowly until the dough is smooth and not sticking. You can also do it by hand with a lot of patience. It is a long job, but completely doable.
Add the rosemary and the olive oil and knead with the dough hook at low speed for about ten minutes, until the mixture has completely absorbed the olive oil, has become smooth and not too sticky.
In the last 5 minutes add the raisins and knead just enough to incorporate them.
Transfer the dough in a greased bowl and let it relax for about 15 minutes in a warm place, as in the closed oven with the little light on.
After this much required rest you can shape the buns, dividing the dough into pieces of 65 g each.
Now you can shape the buns following the links I provided in this post. It's not hard, you just need some practice.
Arrange the round buns in two baking sheets lined with parchment paper, allowing them enough space to rise.
Beat an egg with a tablespoon of water and brush gently each bun. Let them rise again for about 25 minutes, then carve them with a cross just like in the picture and brush again with the egg wash.
Let them rise again until doubled in size.
Preheat oven to 180°C and bake the buns for about 15-20 minutes, until they are golden and well puffed.
Meanwhile, prepare the sugar syrup: boil for about 10 minutes over medium heat the water with the sugar and the open and scraped vanilla bean.
As soon as you take the buns out of the oven, brush them with the hot sugar syrup and let them dry completely.
They are irresistible eaten just out of the oven, but they will keep well for 5-6 days into a tin box or in a Ziploc bag.
*I had again problem with my stand mixer, so I kneaded all the bread by hand: you need patience, especially when you need to incorporate all the olive oil, but it’s completely doable, just allow all the time you need.
With these doses you will obtained 20 pan di ramerino and a braided loaf for breakfast.
The braided loaf was really a winner: it remains soft and fragrant. This dough will henceforth be my brioche dough for any possible recipe, as it is extraordinarily soft, light and delicate.
Since the dough is not too sweet, this is a bread that is also suitable for matching with salty ingredients: a mature cheese, a smoked salmon, a few slices of speck, swordfish or smoked scamorza… Bring it to your Easter table and create your new tradition.
How we love raisins in Italy! Here in Tuscany we use it mostly for sweet recipes. Many traditional desserts have raisins among the key ingredients:
- winter pan co’ Santi, where black pepper, red wine, rosemary, olive oil and raisins enrich a Medioeval inspired bread.
- the Tuscan pine nut cake, a soft cake with an even softer and fondant filling, punctuated with raisins, which were soaked in vin santo.
- castagnaccio, a chestnut cake which is dear to my Tuscan heart, an acquired taste.