Feeding My Colomba Obsession (along with the 52-year-old yeast)

A few days ago I wrote a post all about celebrating Easter in Bologna – a sacred holiday for almost every Italian, Catholic or not. Like most other holidays in Italy, Easter is a time to spend with family and loved ones and usually it’s time spent around the dining room table.

One of the most typical Easter treats is Colomba. Colomba (meaning “dove”) is quite similar to its Christmas cousins, Panettone and Pandoro. Only better.

Similar to the famous Panettone, the dough for Colomba is quite yeasty, made of flour, sugar, eggs, butter, natural yeast (more on this later) and candied orange peel. It is then formed into the shape of a dove bird and topped with whole almonds and pearled sugar before it is baked.

easter_bologna1

Why am I obsessed with his cake (all you Pandoro lovers listen up!)?

  • You get all the yeasty goodness you have in Panettone, but with less of the candied fruit and more of the crunchy, almond-y, sugary bits on the outside.
  • While Pandoro is just plain cake with powdered sugar on top, Colomba gets a lot of its sweetness from the candied fruit and isn’t sweetened by mounds of sugar like Pandoro.
  • It’s shaped like a BIRD Panettone and Pandoro’s roundness bores me). A dove cake – how cool is that?!

I’m telling you, this is one delicious cake and the world needs to know about it.

Which is why I have dedicated an entire post to it – spreading the word about Colomba, one bite at a time!

A few lucky days ago, my Colomba passion was taken to a whole new level. I had popped into a small mercato that sells fresh fruits, vegetables, grains and various other artisan made foods. As I was paying for my groceries, the owner told me to stop by the next day, as they were having a Colomba tasting. Like Pavlov’s dog, my mouth started to water and my stomach did a little dance. Colomba tasting? Pah! Of course I’ll be there.

So the following day I rounded up a few very willing friends and we headed down to the La Terra del Tempo del Bene market right on Via Galliera (fantastic little market, more to come on this next week). Sure enough, there it was: a giant 1.5 kilogram Colomba sitting on the edge of the counter, cut into slices just waiting to be devoured.

Colomba on steroids.

Behind it stood a well dressed, well rounded man (literally) who smiled at us, opening his arms wide as he gestured down at the Colomba before him. “Prego!” he exclaimed. Do you think he saw the gluttonous twinkle in my eye?

Little did I know that this Colomba was so special. Well, at least more special than it normally is.

Colomba Man-4

The man behind the counter – who was the Colomba representative from G. Cova & C. bakery in Milan – began to tell us a little bit about this particular Colomba and where and how it is made.

“Almost all of the ingredients are from Italy – the flour, the eggs, the candied orange peel, even the almonds – are all 100% Italian.”

Okay, nothing particularly notable there…

“The raisins are from from Greece however. They are much better quality. The butter too is not Italian because Italian butter is not the best for baking. French butters are much more suitable. But what really makes this Colomba stand out is the lievito madre, or the natural yeast.”

Time out for a second – “natural yeast”? What in the name of Colomba is that?!

Curious to know more, I did a little research…

Essentially, natural yeast is is like that plant monster from the Little Shop of Horrors (Feed me Seymour!). A mixture of flour, water and microorganisms, natural yeast  continues to grow so long as you feed it. It needs much more time than other types of yeast, however, and is a little bit more difficult to manage in terms of preparation.

How I imagine natural yeast:

On the other hand, the kind of yeast you typically buy in the little packets at the supermarket is called active dry yeast. It’s a mixture of dormant microorganisms. It only becomes active again when you mix it with water and flour, and it helps your bread rise much more rapidly. Easier to manage but not without a discounted end result.

Active dry yeast, while helping your dough rise faster, actually yields a tougher bread or cake, more elastic, and more “holey”. That’s not to say it’s bad or that you can’t get a great bread out of it. It’s just that natural yeast yields a softer, lighter and smoother dough consistency.

The proof is in the Colomba:

 Colomba

So G. Cova & C.’s Colomba cake uses natural yeast. Great. What’s the big deal about that? The amazing fact is that this bakery doesn’t just use any old natural yeast – it uses natural yeast that has been fermented for 52 years.

Yup, you heard me. 52 year old YEAST. That means I’m eating yeast that TWICE MY AGE, and nearly as old as my parents!

How is this possible? Well, according to Colomba man, the bakery keeps their yeast in a refrigerated vault (yes, a vault. That’s how valuable this stuff is). Every day they break off a little bit of the yeast mixture and place it into another container. They add flour and water to the new yeast (“feeding it”), while they continue to ferment the old yeast until it’s ready. In this way, the yeast is constantly fermenting, and a new batch of yeast is made everyday. This continues until the batch is 52 years old.

The result? Well other than a much smoother, lighter consistency, Colomba made with long-fermented yeast tends to last much longer. I could open a Colomba by G. Cova & C. today and it would still be good to eat two weeks later (although I don’t know if it would even last that long in my home). It also doesn’t leave that harsh, artificial taste in your mouth that some Colombas do. Plus, it’s easier to digest. More digestible = more Colomba in my belly.

Easter Colomba

Curious to try out this Colomba? Well you can. As I was researching for this article I noticed that G. Cova & C. actually sells their Colomba & Panettone through Eataly. I was actually quite surprised by this, but I suppose if you’ve got a winner recipe, why wouldn’t you sell to Eataly?

Oh and for those of you in Bologna, you can buy this Colomba from La Terra del Tempo del Bene market on Via Galliera 31.

Buona Pasqua everyone – and happy Colomba eating!

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