Saturday, March 19, 2016

St. Joseph's Bread

I come from a large Italian family. My great grandmother arrived in the United States on the SS Europa in 1910 to marry a man whose family came from the same village she just left. By the time I came along in 1964, she lived with her son and daughter-in-law and as you can imagine, was already quite old and hard of hearing (a problem that runs in our family). When I visited, she would be sitting at an enormous oak table in the front room, a soap opera blasting from the television, playing solitaire. Although she spoke English, she retained a very heavy Italian accent and would lapse into Italian whenever she was excited or frustrated. And I never saw her in anything but plain black or dark dresses, the kind…well, the kind immigrant women wore in the twenties.

She was of course a Roman Catholic and brought with her all sorts of feast days, observations, and traditions. But the most delicious feast day for us was that of Saint Joseph. There is a special kind of bread that is baked only on this day, Saint Joseph’s Bread or Panne di San Guiseppe. It is tender and sumptuous, more like cake but not sweet, more on the savory side. It was a treat everyone in the family looked forward to all year. I don’t know how many loaves my great grandmother would make but every family got one--she would bake all day and then walk to each home to deliver them in today is the feast day of St. Joseph, the day when she would have delivered these treats.

Anise seed (a very traditional Italian spice that shows up in many national and regional dishes) is what gives this bread a subtle taste. Some traditional recipes call for the addition of golden raisins, but I will say that my great-grandmother never added them. While I am in no way religious, I still enjoy this delicious bread.

St. Joseph's Day Bread

5 lb. flour
2 Tbs. salt
1 3/4 cups sugar
2 tbs. baking powder
2 tbs. anise seed
Combine these ingredients in a large bowl
Work in 1 1/4 cups vegetable shortening

In another bowl combine:
4 1/2 cups warm water
3 pkgs. of yeast or 3 tbs. of yeast
Dissolve yeast in warm water
Add 5 eggs, beaten

Add liquid ingredients to flour and shortening mixture. Mix well and knead on floured surface. Place in greased bowl and allow to rise until double in size. Punch down and let rise another hour.

Shape into small round loaves (should yield around 5), and let rise for 30 minutes. Traditionally, the loaves were small and could be made in the shape of a cross, bambino (baby), heart, beard, crown, or staff in honor St. Joseph.

Brush loaves with beaten egg and sprinkle with sesame and poppy seeds. Bake at 350* for 30 minutes or until golden brown. Cool.

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