Pan di Ramerino and Castagnaccio

When I find myself at home for a project, and will be indoors long enough for yeast rolls to rise, or for a baking project, I often try Italian pastries and desserts that I cannot find the ingredients to make in the US.

I can and DO find the ingredients for pan di ramerino when I am in California (“rosemary bread,” and “ramerino” is Tuscan dialect for “rosemary”). My roommates and I discovered these Easter breads while in Florence in 2003, and were completely won over by the combination of raisins and rosemary in a soft roll. We later found out (when we could not find more) that it was a bread recipe specifically made for Good Friday (another book I have says Holy Thursday, instead), and it all but disappears for the year after Pasqua has passed—rather like English hot cross buns.

Yeast ("lievito di birra") dissolving in warm water

Yeast (“lievito di birra”) dissolving in warm water

Fresh rosemary, ready to be minced for the recipe

Fresh rosemary, ready to be minced for the recipe

Foamy yeast, "proofed" and ready to go

Foamy yeast, “proofed” and ready to go

Soft dough, with rosemary mixed in with the flour

Soft dough, with rosemary mixed in with the flour

As many raisins as I can fit into the dough

As many raisins as I can fit into the dough, I knead in

I have not yet found anyone who can tell me the significance of the four crossing incisions on the top, forming a diamond in the middle of each roll, but I have never found one of these in Florence without that marking—so I just copy along blindly, hoping to find someone who can tell me the secret some day.

Both batches into a warm oven to rise and double

Both batches into a warm oven to rise and double

Risen dough, ready to be shaped into rolls

Risen dough, ready to be shaped into rolls

Shaped into rolls, with diamond pattern cut into the tops

Shaped into rolls, with diamond pattern cut into the tops with a very sharp knife

Rising again in the oven

Rising again in the oven, after an egg wash to make them shiny and golden

Risen and ready to be baked

Risen and ready to be baked

I was very experienced in making yeast rolls and breads, and tried to convert a recipe I knew and used often to this one, by adding raisins (both light and dark) and minced fresh rosemary, but my results were not good. Finally, after two failures (edible, but not “just right”), I realized that Tuscans would not make these with butter, but with olive oil, instead—and that was the secret to reproducing the soft rolls that we had found in Florence.

Right out of the oven, and well worth the effort

Right out of the oven, and well worth the effort

Here in Spello, Paola loves these so much that she usually hides them from her family when I bring a tray to her, hot from the oven. The entire family enjoys them, and I was surprised to learn that my first gift to them was the only time they had tasted or seen or heard of pan di ramerino. Recipes here are traditional and regional, and TUSCAN foods are not UMBRIAN foods, even if the regions border each other. (Florence is only 100 miles away from here.) These rolls you see here were carried to Paola and Leonardo’s house, and put under a glass dome near the stove. Paola was frantic when American visitors came (4 rolls gone), when her daughter gave a few to her in-laws to try (2 more), and when her family sat down to enjoy one themselves. Fortunately, I had plenty in the freezer from the second batch, and (of course) she hid them from her family the minute they arrived. I have converted the recipe for her, but she has never tried making them. Why should she? I show up and bring them to her door, still warm from the oven!

Castagnaccia, usually a fall dessert, made with chestnut flour

Castagnaccio, usually a fall dessert, made with chestnut flour and raisins

Castagnaccio is a cake made from the flour of chestnuts (“castagne”) usually only available in the fall, in chestnut season. I had my first slice of this Tuscan (again) favorite in Florence at a restaurant, and loved it more with each bite. It’s not a sweet cake, and the texture is dense, with some raisins inside, and a bit of rosemary and pine nuts sprinkled on the top. I figured I’d try the recipe that came on the bag of castagne flour. I’m not a great fan of chocolate, but did use the 50 g. of bitter cocoa called for in the recipe—and found it made a cake so full of chocolate flavor that I took it right across the piazza to Paola and her family, who were delighted that I’d passed it on to them. Next time, I’ll try another recipe closer to the cake I loved in Florence, and without the chocolate.

It’s fun to learn some of the recipes that are local, and to share ones from other regions that have never appeared here in Spello before—as if they came from another part of the world. Umbrians cook Umbrian foods, with recipes handed down through the family—and I’m shaking them up a bit with some new flavors, and sharing a few of my favorites, hoping they’ll become special for them, too.

(April, 2014)

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