A Three-Cheese Italian Bread for Easter

Freiman is a New York-based food writer

Among the highlights of a recent trip to Italy was the opportunity to make a predawn visit to a small bakery in the Umbrian town of Perugia.

The bakery produces a variety of breads, pizzas and pastries that are characteristic of this mountainous province of Italy. The most notable is a tall, handsome pepper-flecked domed cheese bread made with three cheeses.

While this cheese bread originated as an Easter specialty in Perugia, today it is a staple loaf used for various sandwiches and snacks. Bite-size prosciutto (cured ham) sandwiches were particularly notable at one meal.

By the time I arrived at the bakery, around 5 a.m., the baker's day was half over. Fortunately, the cheese bread was made last as the quantity is small by commercial bakery standards. As a result, I was able to see a 7-pound batch prepared from start to finish. The recipe that follows is a scaled-down version.

It was interesting to note that this bread was made entirely by machine but in a commercial mixer since food processors are relatively unknown in Italy.

The recipe lends itself to processor preparation since the machine grates Parmesan and Romano cheeses and kneads the bread dough in about 1 minute.

Hard cheeses such as Parmesan and Romano are grated by processing to a fine consistency by grinding in a technique I call "grinding to grate."

Remember to remove the rind, break the cheese into 1-inch cubes, and bring the pieces to room temperature before processing. UMBRIAN CHEESE BREAD

3 cups bread flour or unbleached all-purpose flour

2 packages dry yeast

1 1/4 cups warm water (110 to 115 degrees)

2 ounces imported Parmesan cheese, rind removed, (2 one-inch chunks)

2 ounces imported Romano cheese, rind removed, (2 one-inch chunks)

1 1/4 teaspoon salt

3/8 teaspoon black pepper

1/4 cup unsalted butter

2 eggs

2 ounces Gruyere or Appenzeller cheese, in 1/4-inch dices (1/2 cup cubed)

Shortening, butter or margarine

Combine 1 cup flour, 1 package yeast and 3/4 cup warm water in small mixing bowl. Stir to form thick paste. Cover tightly and set aside 2 to 3 hours, until mixture rises to triple volume. (If desired, push down, cover tightly and refrigerate overnight.)

Insert metal blade in dry food processor container. Process Parmesan and Romano cheeses until powdery, set aside. Place remaining flour, yeast, salt, pepper and unsalted butter in processor. Process until butter disappears, usually 30 seconds. Add risen dough mixture.

Mix 1 egg with remaining 1/2 cup water. With machine running, add water-and-egg mixture through food chute within 10 seconds. Process 30 seconds longer. Add grated Parmesan and Romano cheeses and process until mixture forms soft ball, about 30 seconds longer.

Rinse large mixing bowl with warm water but do not dry bowl. Add bread dough and Gruyere cheese cubes and work cheese cubes evenly into dough. Cover bowl tightly with plastic and set aside until dough triples in volume, about 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 hours.

Coat 2-quart souffle dish generously with shortening. Remove risen dough from bowl. Knead into ball and add to souffle dish with smoothest side up. Set aside to rise, uncovered, until dough is mounded 1 inch over rim of dish, about 2 hours.

Brush top of risen dough with remaining egg, beaten. Bake on lowest oven rack at 400 degrees 30 to 35 minutes or until golden brown. Cool bread in souffle dish 30 minutes before removing. Cool to room temperature before slicing. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

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