This sweet bread, known as Ciambella Mandorlato, comes from the Italian city of Bologna. It is a sweet white bread flavored with lemon zest and topped with a crunchy nut brittle made with almonds. This bread was traditionally served during Easter, but today it can commonly be found in Italian bakeries year-round.
I made this recipe for Easter dinner last weekend and it was a big hit. The amounts below make one ring-shaped braided loaf about one foot in diameter. While the nut brittle topping is traditional, the lemony bread is delicious enough to be served alone or with a simple powdered sugar glaze.
- For the bread:
- For the topping:
- 4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- 1 cup roughly chopped skinned almonds, toasted in a 350 degree oven for about ten minutes (check often to avoid burning!)
- 1 or 2 egg yolks
Mix the yeast into the warm milk and let it sit for about five minutes to activate the yeast. While this is happening, mix the flour, salt, sugar, and lemon zest in a large bowl. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture. After the five minutes is up, add the milk, butter, and eggs to the well. Mix the flour into the wet ingredients with a sturdy spoon or your hands. If you are using a spoon you will have to switch to your hands once the dough gets really thick. Remove the dough to a smooth surface and knead it for about ten minutes or until it is smooth and elastic. While mixing and kneading add more water as needed to keep the dough soft and sticky. For those of you with a stand mixer such as a Kitchen Aid, you can use the J hook to mix and knead the dough.
Shape the dough into a ball and place it in a greased large bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a kitchen towel and leave it in a warm place such as an unwarmed gas oven with a pilot light, an electric oven warmed for about 10-20 seconds, or in the sun for about 4 hours until the dough is doubled in size.
Punch down the dough and let it sit for about ten minutes. At this point you could wrap the dough in plastic wrap and leave it in the fridge overnight for baking the next morning. If you do this, let the dough sit out and warm up a bit before moving on to the next step.
Divide the dough into two pieces and roll the dough with your hands into two ropes that are about 1 1/2 to 2 feet long. Pinch one end of the two ropes together and twist one over the other to form a braid. Pinch the other ends together to form a braided circle. Place this on a greased cookie sheet, cover it again with plastic or a towel, and let it rise for about 90 minutes or until doubled in size.
While the dough is rising, make the nut topping for the bread by mixing the cinnamon, sugar, toasted chopped almonds, and one egg yolk in a bowl. This topping should be moist enough to stick to the top of the bread. If it is too dry, add another egg yolk. Use your hands or a rubber spatula to evenly coat the top of the bread with the topping. Be sure to remove any stray bits of topping not stuck to the bread since they will burn.
Place the bread in a preheated 400 degree oven and bake until the topping is crisp and the bread is a golden brown and sounds hollow when tapped. This can take anywhere from 25 to 40 minutes, so check the oven often! Remove the baked bread to a cooling rack and let completely cool before serving. Try to serve the bread the day it is made, but it will stay fresh for several days if you wrap it well in foil or plastic wrap.