Colomba Cake Adventure

In the Beginning 
My three brothers and I have been fascinated with Italian Christmas Panettone and Easter Colombo cakes for nearly twenty years.  Since our family bakery started life in 1920 as a "panifico" or bread bakery, I guess it isn't all that surprising that these cake-like breads have dazzled us.  Like our scaletta “curly” breads they are complicated, time-consuming and other words, they are right up our alley!  They also have other things in common like pure ingredients and precise procedures. Perhaps the most significant underlying fascination they have for us is that they are essentially creations of the professional baker: The procedures and equipment involved in making them are simply out of the normal range of home baking.

The special miracle of the Panettone/Colomba breads, besides the wonderfully fragrant taste and bread-like/cake texture is its remarkable longevity or “keeping” quality. This is white-magic on a high level to professional bakers!  In fact, unlike almost everything else a baker creates this peculiar bread-cake actually improves after it ages a bit. It maintains its soft texture and taste for months and months and-- miracle of miracle-- no mold!  Even more remarkable: this is all done without any artificial preservatives! What professional baker could ask for more?

Our “Colomba Adventure” began about two decades ago with various attempts to create our own leavening agent, lemons combined with raisins then a vinegar and a white-wine starter. They all delivered interesting results but fell short on keeping quality, texture, and appearance.

Next, we began then to import a “starter” (an all-natural yeast) from Germany that we had read about in a European bakery journal. This was a breakthrough for us and the results were more reliable and the keeping quality soared, along with our spirits and hopes!  We still had not reached our goal but we persevered with this imported starter hoping that we could improve our results with continued use and experimentation.  
At this point circumstances intervened and, per my brother David (in charge of all things money) decreed that it simply wasn't cost-effective for us to import Colomba cakes from Italy. However, necessity is a great motivator and it was here that I made my own contribution to our Colomba odyssey. Until this point  my involvement  was  simply selling and packaging the product-- and annoying my brother Tom the baker with a constant stream of criticisms.

I'm always looking for excuses to go pretty much anywhere but particularly to Italy!  I had been in contact with an Italian producer of Panettone starters and since we were in the January doldrums, a bleak business time for most bakers, I hopped on a plane and went to Italy to visit them.  My brothers, knowing my penchant for wanderlust, were not about to pick up the tab for this trip, but I didn't care: it was a trip to Italy!

The wonderful Italian team I met there were a fountain of information, and loads of zany fun. I still remember them offering me a glass of proseco-- before noon! When I sighted the hour, the team-leader Stefano said, “Relax, Michael, you’re in Italy"! I followed his advice (perhaps to a fault). They gave me a cram-course on Colomba-cake baking technique (which frankly I only half-understood but I trained myself to repeat it like an actor his line for the benefit of my brother Tom). They then handed me a surprisingly heavy sample-bag of starter yeast (or what is known as “mother-yeast”) which I grew to hate as I dragged it onto countless trains (there was no need to rush home: after all I was on holiday!)

One week later at U.S. Customs I was being drilled on my beat-up bag and made to feel like I was in possession of contraband! However, after a dispiriting length of time the starter and I both made it through customs and the roller-coaster ride to realizing our goal of making authentic Colomba cake in our own bakery was finally coming into sight.
That was a year ago and we have been making Panettone for every holiday we could think of since: Valentine’s day, Mother’s day, and, of course, Easter Colomba bread in the shape of doves. Every production has been a little bit better than the one that preceded it!

This year our Colomba cake has hit the bulls-eye we have been aiming at.  My brother Tom, who has overseen the production of all of our products since 1967, has without question been the man who made this a success story for us.  His skill with all that rises in an oven, combined with patience, cool judgment, his love of precision, and tenacity allowed us to realize our goal.

But the real joy in realizing our goal is that we four brothers did it together: My oldest brother, David, figures out how to pay for everything we do. My brother Skip manages the very structure of our business. And of course, Tom the master baker, and finally me: the salesman. It works for us, and we work for each other!

The Baker’s Journal : Making Colomba Bread
In reading about the history of the Italian Easter Colomba cake I am amazed and frankly a little skeptical but it is traceable to medieval times, a barbarian siege of the City of Pavia, later Frederick Barbarosa even makes an appearance into its history! For me this noble history is merely the romantic ledged behind what is the accomplishment of 19th , 20th  and 21st century Italian bakers.  Their genius was to embrace the advances in baking science without ever losing their way, without ever forgetting that it is whole ingredients and traditional methods which make this cake so delicious and possible. It is only natural that the Colomba cake is rich in natural ingredients as well.

Our Colomba Bread-Cake (and it is truly a combination of both bread and cake) begins with butter, sugar, egg yolks, flour and a highly-specialized imported Italian yeast (known as a “natural” or “mother-starter”) .This yeast is used only in the production of Colomba Bread and its Christmas counterpart, Panettone.

After mixing only a part of the above ingredients to create what is known as a “lean-dough”, the next step is to stop. And wait: the dough must ferment overnight at an optimum temperature that is cool yet not cold. In doing so, the unique flavor and natural enzymes are released.

Next day, the “sponge-dough” as it is now called, is enriched with more sugar, eggs, and butter: this is known as the “second-mix”.  For this Second or “Final mix” dried tart-cherries, candied oranges imported from Italy, and black and gold rum-soaked raisins are added. The dough then is allowed to ferment (or “rest”) for at least five more hours in a mixing bowl.

During this time our eyes are not so much on the timer, but on the dough itself: Colomba dough is particularly sensitive to the cold weather and since spring-time in Niagara Falls can go from sunny to snow-storm in less than an hour.

The dough is then cut or “scaled” on a “buttered bench”: this is a long baker’s table coated in butter to prevent the dough from sticking AND which eliminates the need for extra flour (which would overly-toughen the dough). The dough is then divided into two pieces which are joined in the baking-mold. Before baking, the newborn Colomba doves spend two-to-three hours in a steam or “proof” box, where the humidity and temperature are carefully calibrated so that the unique Italian yeast will cultivate properly.

Out of the steam-box—but still not yet into the oven!—the Colomba loaves receive an icing or “glassa” on top: this is a delicious paste made from crushed almond flour, sugar, and egg-whites. Applying the glassa to the delicate risen dough is messy and challenging, as rough treatment can de-gas (that is, collapse) the dough.  It is worth the effort as it turns into a delectable baked-on frosting.

Each Colomba bread is then studded with whole almonds and sprinkled with large-grain, white-pearl sugar, another Italian product I found in my travels in Italy.

To let the Colomba “recover” from this final adornment, it receives another trip to the steam-box for a “final-proofing”. My brother Tom hovers around it (and a million other jobs). When it actually goes into the oven is a judgment call he makes, but the timing and temperature are pure chemistry: baked for forty-five minutes to an hour and checked with a thermometer.

At this point the entire baking area is filled with an aroma that is-- well, it may sound cliché-- but it is a heavenly aroma! I personally can’t stop peaking at them in the oven as they rise and rise in their molds, higher than you would every believe them to grow. The glassa turns a shiny gold and it seems a miracle to me that that yellow sticky dough covered in greyish topping could transform into such a beautiful creation.
If your mouth is watering and eager to taste our Easter Colomba bread, you’ll still have to wait (along with our bakers!) at least another eight-to-ten hours while they cool completely. The cooling—like all the other steps in the Colomba process—cannot be rushed since the temperature must be the same throughout the bread before it can be wrapped.

However, once wrapped, the Colomba bread, will last up to six months and it will not mold!

It has been quite adventure with a happy ending as we got the Colomba bread we were after—not in Italy, but right here in Niagara Falls, New York!

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  • Michael DiCamillo
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