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A Christmas Bread Called Pandolce



I have an article in this month’s SAVEUR magazine.  It’s all about pandolce, the holiday feast bread from Liguria--and the bread my great grandmother made long ago.  I hope you all go out and get it because Saveur is a wonderful magazine. And the photos--such as the one above by Penny De Los Santos--are beautiful. In the meantime, since they don’t have the article available online, I’ll tell you a little about it.  It’s the story of how last year at Christmas time, I went to a little town called Savignone north of Genoa to learn how to make a very very special pandolce with a 6th generation baker named Adriano and his wife Harriet.  This is Savignone.

Adriano and his father built a little cabin with wood burning oven inside it, and this is where Adriano gave the lesson.  Here we are in their little 12 x 12 cabin.  This is Harriet and Adriano.  And these are all the ingredients they had ready on the table when we arrived:  flour, sugar, butter, raisins, candied orange peel, and pignoli.



But the most important ingredient of all was this stuff called lieveto madre, or “mother leaven"--sometimes also called wild yeast.  This is basically a form of sour dough that has been continually “kept going” for more than 100 years in Adriano’s family.  It is a naturally fermented product--of the sort that people once used before there was instant dry active yeast.  It’s more work to care for and feed it, but serious bakers love the stuff as it produces a far better tasting bread with a webby crumb. 


(After I returned home, I started my own leaven at home so I could make my own bread.  All you need is flour, water, and a little pinneapple juice--plus all the natural and wild bacteria in the air of your house. )

Here’s Adriano kneading all the ingredients--very hard work by hand. 


And these are the pandolce all formed and ready to rest overnight.

The next day, Adriano made a fire in this oven and then, when it subsided, swept out the coals and put the pandolce inside.  Then he shut the door.

This is what came out.  It was a beautiful thing. 

Adriano and Harriet will soon be opening a place in the mountains where they will bake bread and eventually offer bed and breakfast stays, perhaps some baking lessons too.  I will keep you posted on this wonderful couple

Now here are the recipes.  What I ABSOLUTELY MUST TELL YOU (and this is all explained in the article) is that there are two kinds of pandolce:  “basso,” which means low and is crumbly like a scone, and “alto” which means high and is the yeasted bread. 

Adriano’s basso recipe is extremely easy and you can put it together basically in an hour.  His alto recipe is another matter and requires a bit of natural leaven.  I’ve put it here for the gamers and true bakers.  It’s worth the effort.  Meanwhile, for those with less time to spare, the kitchen editors at Saveur magazine created an adaptation of pandolce alto using dry active yeast.  Warning:  Adriano’s recipes are still in “Italian,” meaning: you must use a kitchen scale and weigh everything in grams.  Good luck!

Adriano’s Pandolce Basso
Easy to make and delicious, produces three large breads. 

500 gr cake flour
500 gr bread flour
38 gr baking powder
8 gr salt
400 gr soft butter
340 gr sugar
1 egg
1 yolk
330 gr warm milk
2T orange blossom water
3 T fennel seeds that have been soaked twenty minutes in hot water and drained
700 gr best raisins you can find,
200 gr candied orange peel, best quality
100 gr candied citron, best quality
110 gr pinoli

1.  Heat the oven to between 325 and 350 degrees.  Combine dry ingredients.

2 Using a mixer, thoroughly beat the butter and sugar together.  Add the egg, yolk, milk, orange blossom water, and fennel seeds. The mixture will be very wet.  That’s okay.

3.  Mix in the flour slowly until you have a sticky dough. 

4.  Work the fruit into the dough in batches using your hands either in the bowl or on a flat work surface.  First add the raisins, then the candied fruit, then the nuts.  Make sure all are distributed evenly. 

5.  Cut into three or four equal pieces, depending on whether you want large or small pandolce.  Form into flat spheres like a dome, no more than 2 inches tall.  Using a razor blade or a very sharp non-serrated knife, slash a cross on the top, not very deep.  Lay on parchment paper on double cookie sheets.  Bake 40 to 45 minutes in the center of the oven or until a stick comes out clean.  Check the pandolce midway.  If it is getting too dark, cover with foil to prevent burning. 

Saveur Magazine’s Interpretation of for Adriano’s Pandolce Alto

Adriano’s Pandolce Alto
Made With Natural Leaven


180 gr water
150 gr sugar
500 gr bread flour
120 gr natural leaven* (taken from the recipe below)
190 gr butter
380 gr high quality raisins
190 gr candied orange peel
50 gr pignoli

1.  Refresh your leaven three times over the course of ten to eleven hours.  You can use Adriano’s schedule as follows: 

At 8:30 am:  take 120 grams of leaven and add 80 grams flour and 40 water. Knead until mixed.  Cover and let sit.

At 12:30, repeat the refreshment.  You will now have 240 grams of leaven.  Add 160 flour and 80 water.  Knead.  Cover and let sit.

At 4:30 repeat again.  You will now have 480 grams of leaven.  Refresh with 320 grams flour and 160 grams of water.  Knead, cover, and let sit.

2.  At 7 pm, or whenever the third refreshment is complete and leaven has doubled for the third time, mix sugar into water until it is dissolved.  If you are using a heavy-duty stand up mixer with a dough hook, put flour in the mixer bowl.  If you are doing this by hand, spread out your flour in a circle on a clean work surface.  Gradually pour the sugared water in the center and use your other hand to slowly work it in until you have a pasty dough. 

3.  Measure out 570 grams of leaven.  Reserve the rest.  Knead leaven into dough until thorough incorporated.

4.  Add butter.  If you are using a mixer do this on low speed and be patient.  It will take a while for the butter to mix in.  Knead on a low speed for 20 minutes. If you are working by hand, flatten out your dough into a rectangle.  Put butter in center, and fold over.  Begin kneading until butter is incorporated.  Knead for a total of 40 minutes or until the dough is silky.  It may take up to an hour.

5.  Add raisins, then fruit and nuts.  Do this by hand as a mixer will break the raisins.  Lay out your dough on a work surface and flatten it into a rectangle about 1 ½ inches thick.  Lay your raisins in the center and wrap the dough around them. Begin kneading. It will take time to incorporate all of this. As raisins fall out, just put them back in.

6.  Let rest for five minutes.  Then flatten out the dough again and cut into three equal pieces—use a scale to be sure.  Each bread will weigh about 700 grams.  Now, form each pandolce into a small ball about four inches tall.  Place on parchment paper and let rise, uncovered, in a warm place (ideally 20 degrees) overnight, or until the breads rise by 35 to 40 percent in size.  This will take least 12 hours—but as many as 16 hours or even more.  A skin will form. 

7.  Just before baking, use a razor blade or the point of a very sharp non-serrated knife, to make a triangle in top center.  Inspect your breads.  Tuck in any raisins that are hanging too far out to avoid burning.  Put breads in a preheated oven for 45 minutes at 170 centigrade (between 325 and 350 fahrenheit), on double cookie sheets in the center of the oven.  Check halfway.  If it is beginning to get too dark, cover lightly with tin foil. 

8.  Do not even think of cutting this for four hours. 

When well wrapped in plastic, both pandolce alto and basso last for three months. 

Making Your Own Natural Leaven

You may not have access to Adriano’s hundred-year-old yeast, but you can begin one on your own.  It will take a couple of weeks to get ready along, along with a good amount of patience for the process fermentation, which is inexact and varies from kitchen to kitchen.  A digital kitchen scale is a must have.

My first efforts resulted in moldy leaven that smelled really hideous.  Luckily, I found a coach.  Peter Reinhart, master baker, leaven expert, and author of The Bread Baker’s Apprentice and Whole Grain Breads “>The Bread Baker’s Apprentice and Whole Grain Breads was willing.  (If you are any kind of serious baker you must have these books.)Peter tweaked my leaven recipe and coached me on.  His secret was to use some pineapple juice.  The acids prevent mold.  And also to stir it every day to move those acids through the leaven.  When I got my it to rise cheered me on.  “You go girl,” he wrote.  “Now make the bread”

Natural Leaven

100 grams organic pineapple juice (the acids work well to prevent mold)
200 grams high gluten flour or bread flour
70 grams water

1.  Mix all the ingredients together in a bowl with a spoon, your hands, or with a stand up mixer. Cover and let ferment at a temperature of 75 degrees (ideally).  This process could take anywhere from 5 to 10 days depending on your environment.  It is very important that you stir the mixture once or twice a day, especially during the first three days. 

2.  Wait.  Nothing much will happen the first few days.  But then you will see your leaven bubble as natural fermentation occurs and yeasts build.  When it doubles or when it has sat for 8 days (whichever comes first), you have the beginnings of your own mother yeast.  It is fragile and must be fed. 

3.  Feed your yeast every day until it is strong enough to use.  After that, you will need to do this only once a week.  Here’s the method:

Weigh your dough.  Add two thirds of its weight in flour (use bread flour or high gluten flour) and one-third of its weight in water.  This is Adriano’s hydration formula.  For example:

For every 150 grams of leaven
100 grams flour
50 grams water

Knead.  If it is too sticky to handle, add a little more flour.  Cover and leave out and wait.  When it doubles in size, put it in the refrigerator covered tightly until the next day when you feed it again.  As the yeast grows stronger, the rising time will accelerate.  When your dough is able to double in about three hours, then it is strong enough to for use in pandolce or other breads.  When you are not using it, keep it in your refrigerator. 

Note:  feel free to adjust the feeding formula if your dough is too sticky or too dry.  It should be moist and springy.  It will get better and develop more flavor and character over time.

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I made “wild yeast” once, I believe that is what I made by just putting a bunch of grapes in some cheese cloth and smashing them a bit and then putting that little sack in a combination of, I think, half water and half flour.  IT IS CRITICAL THAT YOU DO THIS ONLY IN A JAR THAT CAN ALLOW GAS TO ESCAPE SUCH AS A LARGE MASON JAR WITH THE RUBBER RING OR IT WILL EXPLODE.  You keep it in the oven (not lit) for about a week and keep adding fdlour every day (some) The mold on the grapes yields the yeast.  Did I make wild yeast?  I recall adding SOME store bought yeast to add a little kick when it came time for baking.  It was a fun experiment. I have also baked pandolce in flower pots which make a perfect “terracotta” container.  Great article.

    –  (December 21 2008 at 12:28)

Happy New Year
I have good pictures i tried to send, but i don’t think they arrived. Tech savvy i ain’t.
I found ESTROG CITRON at Monterey market in Berkeley and Budda’s hand at berkeley bowl. I candied them both and,along with my candied citrus peel and other ingredients, made a Gubbana, two panettone, a pandolce Genovese, and two glorious pandolce alto. We ate two batches of Tessie and Adalgiza’s ravioli too.(with radiccio and dandelion greens instead of spinach). YUM!
The favorite bread was Adriano’s pandolce alto as, like you said, it is a cross between biscotti and fruitcake.
I used the recipe in Saveur.
Curiously, Nick Malgieri’s Pandolce Genovese is more like panettone than pandolce alto.

Pandolce Genovese:
“A synthesis of different pandolci I (Nick Malgieri) tasted in Santa Margherita Ligure, Recco, and Genoa.

SPONGE:  1/2C. all purpose flour
1/4C. water
1 envelope active dry yeast.

For the sponge, place the flour in a small bowl. Measure warm tap water and
whisk the yeast into the water. Stir the yeast mixture into the flour. Cover tightly and allow to ferment at room temp. until double, about 30 minutes.

DOUGH:  3C. all purpose flour
3/4C. sugar
2/3C. warm water
11/2tsp. salt
4TBLS. unsalted butter,
melted and cooled

1/3C. raisins
1/3C.candied citron
or orange peel
1/3C. pine nuts
1TBLS. fennel seeds

For the dough,place first 5 ingredients, in order given,in a bowl. Mix in sponge by hand, squeezing for five minutes.
Turn onto lightly floured board and knead by folding it over on itself repeatedly until smooth and elastic,
about 10 minutes. Mix in fruit, nuts, and seeds.
Allow to ferment in covered bowl until doubled,3-4hrs.
Scrape dough onto floured board and fold it several times to deflate. Form
into a round loaf, place on a parchment lined cookie sheet, and cover with a towel. Proof until double,2-3hrs. 
Immediately before baking,slash the
top of the pandolce:make 2 parallel cuts
2 inches apart on the top of the loaf,
then 2 more cuts perpendicular to the first ones to form a #.
Bake at 375 about one hour until deep golden.
Cool on a rack. Store well wrapped
in plastic.

    –  (January 03 2009 at 6:19)

Have you read Pomp and Sustenance by Mary Taylor Semiti? It has a wonderful chapter on bread and talks about the history, some recent about women using the criscenti and taking it to the local bakery to make their bread.  She also has a recipe for making the dough although not from wild yeast.  The pandolce article has been one of my favorites.

    –  (January 04 2009 at 8:57)

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