Italian Easter Cheese Bread: toast of the town

Cheese bread.

Just hearing those two words together – “cheese,” and “bread” – makes your mouth start to water, doesn’t it?

Who doesn’t savor cheese? Who doesn’t love bread?

Who among us didn’t grow up enjoying multiple incarnations of each of these Comfort Food All-Stars?

Think mac ‘n’ cheese. Peanut butter sandwiches. Cinnamon toast. Cheese and crackers.

And, of course, that magical place where the two join hands and sing in perfect harmony: the grilled cheese sandwich.

Cheese bread – bread with the cheese baked right into it – evinces thoughts of melting pockets of cheddar or mozzarella, tantalizingly oozing with each new cut of knife into loaf.

But some cheese breads – like this Crescia al Formaggio, a.k.a. Italian Easter Cheese Bread – are more refined. More European, if you will.

We Americans can be prone to excess with our favorite foods. Imagine a 5-scoop banana split: rivers of hot fudge, generous dollops of strawberry and pineapple sauce, dripping marshmallow, neon-red cherry on top.

Now imagine not at Dairy Queen, but in… Paris.

I don’t think so.

Thus this particular cheese bread might not be exactly what you’re used to.

It’s packed with Parmesan, true; but it’s there for flavor, not its ooze quotient.

And, rather than being moist and soft, the bread is dry; almost austere. Which makes it the perfect vehicle for toast: drizzled with olive oil, spread with sweet cream butter… or topped with fig and walnut spread, for a truly adult treat.

Are you ready to bake cheese bread, Continental-style?

This Crescia is a great place to start.

The classic Italian Crescia is baked in a pandoro (star) pan; a brioche pan is a good stand-in.

However, since I know most of you don’t have either of those pans, I’ll make one version in a brioche pan (above), and the other in a regular American loaf pan.

Did you know that by clicking anywhere on this block of pictures, you can enlarge them to full size? Go ahead, give it a try; it’ll work for any of our gridded photos.

Place the following in a bowl; a stand mixer is very helpful here, since you’re going to beat the dough for 10 minutes.

2 1/2 cups (10 1/2 ounces) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1 1/4 teaspoons instant yeast
3 large eggs, at room temperature
1 large egg yolk, white reserved
1/4 cup lukewarm water
1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) softened butter
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground pepper (black if you don’t mind the specks, white if you do)

Beat on medium speed for 10 minutes, until the dough becomes shiny and satiny. It’ll be very sticky; stop the mixer to scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl a couple of times during the mixing process.

Add 1 1/4 cups freshly grated Parmesan, Romano, or Asiago cheese, or a combination. Beat until well combined.

Scrape the dough into a lightly greased bowl, cover the bowl, and set it aside to rest/rise for 1 hour; it won’t do much, as you can see from the bottom two pictures in the grid above.

Gently deflate the dough, turn it over, return it to the bowl, and allow it to rest/rise for an additional hour; again, it may not seem to rise much — again, that’s OK.

Divide the dough into three pieces; roll each piece into a 12″ log, and braid the logs.

I’m doing a “center first” braid here; it helps prevent your braid from looking like a slithering snake, or from being fat at one end, skinny at the other.

So, start in the center, and braid out to one end. Flip the entire loaf over, so the top is now the bottom, and the bottom the top; and braid out to the other end.

I have to say I didn’t do THAT great a job, but I do like this method; it usually creates a nicely shaped braid.

Nestle the braid into a lightly greased 9″ x 5″ loaf pan.

Cover the loaf lightly, and allow it to rise for 2 hours (or longer, depending on the warmth of your kitchen); the dough should have become noticeably puffy, though it won’t have doubled in size.

While the loaf is rising, put your oven rack in a lower position, just below the middle, and preheat the oven to 425°F.

Whisk the reserved egg white with 2 teaspoons cold water, and brush the top of the loaf.

Place the bread in the oven and bake it for 15 minutes.

Reduce the oven temperature to 350°F, tent the bread lightly with aluminum foil, and bake for an additional 30 minutes, until it’s a deep, golden brown and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center registers 190°F.

Remove the bread from the oven, and let it cool in the pan for 5 minutes. Use a knife to loosen the edges, if necessary, and turn the loaf out onto a rack to cool completely before slicing.

Really – you’ll be happier if you let the loaf cool completely before slicing.

Store airtight, at room temperature, for several days. Freeze, tightly wrapped, for longer storage.

Now, how about a traditional round loaf?

Form the dough into a ball, and place it in a greased pandoro (star) or panettone pan; a large souffle dish; or another round, deep pan. The pan should be about 6″ to 7″ wide, and 3″ to 4″ deep.

Let rise and bake as directed, increasing the final 30 minutes to 35 minutes.

Pretty, eh?

Slice, toast, and enjoy!

I find the American-style loaf handier; its slices fit nicely in a typical toaster.

However, there’s something to be said for tradition; and a toaster oven can easily handle the larger brioche-style slices of a classic loaf.

Read, bake, and review (please) our recipe for Italian Easter Cheese Bread.

Print just the recipe.

PJ Hamel
About

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!

comments

  1. Natalie

    Thank you, KAF, for another super recipe. For those interested, I doubled the recipe and mixed/kneaded the dough in the bread machine with wonderful success and ease. Because my bread pans are a little smaller than the recipe suggests, I ended up with three loaves, two of which I froze for Easter. This was a great opportunity for me to clean out the cheese drawer and grate several nobs of parmesan, romano, & asiago. I added the grated cheeses a handful at a time during the middle of the knead cycle. When the kneading was complete rather than letting the dough rest & rise in the machine, I transferred the dough to a greased bowl, covered and let it proof in the oven on “proof” setting. Couldn’t have been simpler with delicious results. Wish I could post a photo to share!! Thank you, PJ!

    Reply
  2. Cathy

    Made two loaves with friend today. They both are delicious and beautiful but one rose significantly more than the other. We did not double the recipe but made each loaf separately . Just wondering if you could suggest why there were different. Thanks

    Reply
    1. MaryJane Robbins

      Hi Cathy,
      There can be a number of different things that might have affected the rise. Warmer water in one loaf, or a bit more yeast. A little more or less kneading, your friend squishing down your dough as sabotage…well, probably not that one. ~MJ

  3. Sue Greiner

    Can I freeze the dough after the first rising, defrost it and let it rise again and then bake it? Thanks

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      We have had the best success freezing yeasted dough when the bread is baked all the way through then allowed to cool completely before wrapping plastic wrap and storing in the freezer. Allow it to come to room temperature or it can thaw in the fridge overnight. To reheat, put it in a 300 degree oven for about 5-10 minutes or until it reaches the desired degree of warmth. When the dough is put into the freezer without being baked first, there is a chance that the yeast cells could burst as the water expands. This might yield a final product that does not rise quite as much once it goes into the oven. I hope this helps! Happy baking! Kye@KAF

  4. Monica

    Can you double the dough and bake it in 3.5 quarts of la Cocotte? Or this snout of dough is a big enough for 3.5 quarts?

    Reply
    1. MaryJane Robbins

      Hi there,
      This particular bread really need the support of the loaf pan, so we’d say skip the cloche for this one. ~ MJ

  5. Diane

    Several posters have suggested swapping olive oil for butter. Quarter cup of olive oil? How about half butter and half oil?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      It shouldn’t be a problem substituting oils in this recipe. Generally fat is fat, when it comes to bread, so you can choose whatever sounds best to you. Barb@KAF

  6. Ricardo Neves Gonzalez - SENAC - Petrópolis - R.J. - BRAZIL

    For me, is really a great pleasure to come back here at this post to talk about and give new feedbacks on this AMAZING bread!
    It´s the best salty bread i´ve baked in my life, so far!! The magical scent it spreads in the air is really the best! My family always asks for more, more, more!
    At this days of World Cup games, it´s really a big right choose to toasts and pair with some sauces, patés and bottles of beer. I say this bread is among the best breads this blog published since begin. The perfectly combination of cheese, pepper and bell pepper turns all into in, in, in!!!
    Like all the breads destined to be toasted, this one needs to dry completely, before you slice and reheated it at medium oven, for 8 to 10 minutes.The crispy consistence of the toasts is awlful!!!!Awsome!

    Reply
  7. MizGriz

    For those of you who felt this bread was dry — you’re right — but — wrap it up for a couple of days and let it mature. You’ll get a happy surprise, a subtle change in both texture and flavor that will change your mind about this bread.

    Reply
  8. Shirley Waypa

    I am new to this, but you said Mix, I assume that you mean with the beaters and Not the dough hook, right? The last time I mixed with the beaters, the dough gummed up and almost burned up the mixer. Please clarify this for me. Are these stand up mixers that powerful?
    Thanks for all you r help

    shirley

    Reply
    1. MaryJane Robbins

      Hi Shirley,
      Sorry for any confusion. Yes, unless we specify to use the beaters in a recipe, for dough we mean to use the dough hook. ~ MJ

    1. MaryJane Robbins

      Hi Barbara,
      Yes, this would make lovely rolls. You’ll want to bake them in muffin tins so they don’t spread too much. ~ MJ

  9. Jan G

    This was one of those recipes that when you find it you have to jump up and make it right away, and I did!! The house smells like heaven and my finished braided loaf is over 5 inches high and gorgeous. This will be my test for Easter, no doubt it will be on my table!!

    Reply

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