Italian Easter Cheese Bread: toast of the town

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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 was born in Wisconsin, grew up in New England, and graduated from Brown University. She was a journalist in Massachusetts and Maine before joining the King Arthur Flour Company in 1990, where she's been ever since. Author or co-author of three King Arthur ...

comments

  1. cwcdesign

    PJ,

    Can you make this in a bread machine on the dough cycle? Mine’s arriving any day now. Yay!
    Yes, you sure may. You can add the cheese once the machine beeps towards the end of the kneading cycle. You may allow it to rise in the machine or remove and allow to rise in a greased bowl of your choice. Enjoy your machine! Elisabeth

    Reply
  2. Judy Jacques

    Hello and thanks for this great recipe.

    Please what is the weight of the parmesan?
    Thanks
    Hello Judy – the weight of the cheese is 6 oz. You may view this recipe in volume, ounces or grams. Take a look on the recipe’s page under, ingredients. That is pretty cool and now you will never have to wonder. Elisabeth

    Reply
  3. carolmccaslin

    PJ:

    I am so excited to see this bread. My Italian grandmother used to make an Easter bread like this. I have tried and tried but could not replicate. Guess who will be making bread this weekend. Wow! How cool is this. Brings back memories of my childhood. You are right it did not oose cheese and it was dry. That is what makes toast so great! Thanks!

    Carol

    Carol, so glad we could help revive those happy memories. I hope this is just what you’re looking for – PJH

    Reply
  4. David

    Mmm, looks tasty. Could you do this in a monkey bread/pull apart form for a party?
    Yes, you could David. I bet it would be a crowd pleaser! Elisabeth

    Reply
  5. cwcdesign

    OK, reading directions for making the braid. The recipe says to do half the braid from the center out and then to “flip it over” Does that mean the top becomes the bottom, or to switch the braid front to back?
    Sorry for the confusion, yes, just switch the braid front to back. ~Amy

    Reply
  6. Ricardo Neves Gonzalez - SENAC RJ - BRAZIL

    Hi. P.J.
    I´d baked this Crescia bread months ago right at Pandoro pan. The recipe was at list of recipes since that time. It´s wonderful, soft and aromatic, with tender and little moist crumb when it ready, right from the oven. Perfectly for delicious fine toasts. That Polish recipe 2 posts ago i loved tooooo.
    Really 2 Ester gifts for us the bread aficcionados!!

    Ricardo – see, patience comes to those who wait! Glad you’re enjoying these bread recipes. :) PJH

    Reply
  7. Carla

    Is the dough firm enough to braid and then bake free-form without a loaf pan? It looks wonderful and very much like a parmesan-cracked pepper loaf I recently purchased for the price of a small country. I never buy store bread, but somehow the fragrance of the loaf got to me! :p Go for it! It may spread sideways a little, but should basically hold its shape. You can even braid it and twist it into a round shape. The pan makes the bread perfect for slicing and sandwiches.

    Reply
  8. lornaliebe

    What would you reccomend for making into individual rolls. How many oz for dough and the baking time and temp?3 oz. and bake them in muffin pans so the top is bigger then the bottom. You can egg wash them and sprinkle the tops with a little cheese.

    Reply
  9. jjmcgaffey

    cwcdesign, and Amy – in the blog post (this one) it actually says to flip the braid over, specifically so that the top becomes the bottom and the bottom the top. I’m having a hard time visualizing it…guess I’ll just have to bake the bread and see!

    This sounds great. I think I’ll try the monkey-bread idea, as well as a braided loaf.

    Just to clarify, I added the info. to flip the braid over as a result of cwc’s pointing out it was confusing… Thanks, one and all, for helping us out here! PJH

    Reply
  10. lhalweg

    What would changeif I used bread flour for this recipe? I absolutely love all the recipes I’ve tried from KA! Thanks

    Due to bread flour’s higher protein and greater absorption, you’d need to increase the water to 1/3 cup (or maybe a bit more) to attain the same dough texture as shown in the photos. Beyond that, should be just fine. Enjoy – PJH

    Reply
  11. dlhutch

    Just baked this great bread! It looks and smells terrific! Haven’t sliced it yet. Taking it to a get together this evening and it is sure to be a hit!

    Reply
  12. lourdes.c

    Could I double this recipe to make two loaves?

    Sure, go ahead and double everything, including the yeast – it may rise a bit more quickly, but I’m sure you’ll be able to handle it. Good luck – PJH

    Reply
  13. Stella oddi

    This is my family recipe for pasqua
    I have 4 small loaves (always round) baking now.
    We use olive oil not butter and definitely black pepper and only good pecorino Romano
    Your slow rise recipe is correct … 5 hrs
    The loaves are saved until holy Saturday then blessed
    Somehow they taste better :-)
    Served sliced thin with prociutto or mortadella or capicola
    And a little vin santo– sante!

    Stella, thanks for the serving suggestions – I’ll give them a try when I serve this Saturday/Sunday. Buona Pasqua! PJH

    Reply
  14. wwf

    any way to make this all or part whole wheat?
    how much water would i add if i replaced half or 2/3 of the white flour with whole wheat?
    thanks

    You can try – the texture will be severely compromised (Italians don’t bake much bread with ww flour), but the taste should be OK. I’d add 1 tablespoon water, and let the dough rest for 20 minutes before kneading. Good luck – PJH

    Reply
  15. tgelineau

    I make a version of this bread from an old family recipe – had to track down several Aunts, cousins, etc. and now am in charge of the Good Friday Crescia baking. About six of us get together at one house and we ALL make double batches, spending the day baking and chatting and catching up. EVERYONE in my large, Italian family loves it, so we all need several loaves to pass around! We also use olive oil (also butter) FAR more cheese and pepper, plus we add nutmeg and cloves to perfume the loaf. It is the best ever!

    Nutmeg and cloves – wow, that’s a new twist. Definitely need to add that to my list of things to try, thanks. PJH

    Reply
  16. Casey

    In our family’s recipe we place chopped up American or Monterey Jack into the loaf as well as add triple the pepper and make this in a large circular loaf pan that is around 20″ across. Great recipe!

    Wow, that’s some impressively sized loaf, Casey! I like the idea of lots of pepper, too – I think next time I’ll ramp it up. Happy Easter – enjoy your crescia! PJH

    Reply
  17. cartvl219

    I want to make this next week for a neighborhood bake sale. I have some of your paper bake-and-give pandoro pans – full size, not the minis. The diameter is right but they’re only about 2 1/2″ deep. Could I use one of these or would it be better to use a souffle dish? I have a glazed souffle dish that is quite large (7 1/2″x3 1/2″) and another that is somewhat smaller (7″x3″) and unglazed. The size is right but I worry that the bread would stick badly to the unglazed surface. Well, I have plenty of loaf pans!!
    Carolyn

    Hi Carolyn, The paper pans will work just fine. And they’ll make rewarming the loaf so much easier for the lucky neighbor. Go for it. Frank @ KAF.

    Reply
  18. annliz

    Hey PJ ! It’s okay to use handheld mixer’s dough hook to mix this dough ? Thanks !

    Absolutely – any kneading method you choose is fine; just try to knead enough to emulate the photos in this post, OK? Good luck – PJH

    Reply
  19. momma_D

    I was not impressed with this bread at all. I’ve made a LOT of breads in my day and this one was terrible. It’s dry (I know you mentioned this) salty (way too much salt for the amount of dough) and it doesn’t rise at all. Yuck, the birds might not even eat this one.

    Reply
  20. pat s

    I also grew up eating this bread my grandma made it often 4-5 loaves at a time using any pan or glass bowl she had she never wrote the recipe down so when she passed , we would have this when our church met on Plam Sunday , members who made the bread didn’t /or weren’t willing to share this guarded recipe, many years later my cousin finally obtain it from a member. I now make it.after reading your recipe I am going to use olive oil instead of butter ( that’s how my grandma made it) I use
    corase black pepper and all 3 cheeses

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      Pat, don’t you love that coarse black pepper/sharp cheese combo? This makes awesome toast, and is really good served with pasta, isn’t it? Thanks for sharing here – PJH

  21. 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
    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

  22. 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

  23. 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
  24. 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

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