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Colomba Cake 101

Colomba Cake 101

In the Beginning
My brothers and I have been fascinated with Italian Christmas Panettone and Easter Colomba cakes for well over thirty years.  Since our family bakery started life in 1920 as a "panificio", or bread bakery, I guess it isn't all that surprising that these cake-like breads have dazzled us.  Like our scaletta “curly” breads, they are complicated, time-consuming and labor-intensive....in other words, they are right up our alley!  They also have other things in common like pure ingredients and precise procedures. Perhaps the most significant underlying fascination Colomba Cakes have for us is that they are essentially creations of the professional Italian baker: the procedures and equipment involved in making them are simply out of the normal range of home baking. And nothing quite captures the spirit of the Italian Easter celebration like this fruit-studded leavened cake.

The special miracle of the Panettone/Colomba breads, besides their wonderfully fragrant taste and bread-like/cake texture, is their remarkable longevity or “keeping” quality. This is white-magic on a high level to professional bakers!  In fact, unlike almost everything else a baker creates, this peculiar bread-cake actually improves after it ages a bit. It maintains its soft texture and taste for months and months and-- miracle of miracles-- no mold!  Even more remarkable: this is all done without any artificial preservatives! What professional baker could ask for more?

Our “Colomba Adventure” began almost three decades ago with various attempts to create our own leavening agent; lemons combined with raisins, and then a vinegar and a white-wine starter. They all delivered interesting results but fell short on keeping quality, texture, and appearance.

Next, we began to import a “starter” (an all-natural yeast) from Germany that we had read about in a European bakery journal. This was a breakthrough for us and the results were more reliable and the keeping quality soared, along with our spirits and hopes!  We still had not reached our goal, but we persevered with this imported starter hoping that we could improve our results with continued use and experimentation.  
At this point circumstances intervened and, per my brother David (in charge of all things money) decreed that it simply wasn't cost-effective for us to import Colomba cakes from Italy. However, necessity is a great motivator and it was here that I made my own contribution to our Colomba odyssey. Until this point  my involvement  was  simply selling and packaging the product.

We have been making Panettone for every holiday we could think of since: Valentine’s day, Mother’s day, and, of course, Easter Colomba bread in the shape of doves. Every production has been a little bit better than the one that preceded it!

This year our Colomba cake has hit the bulls-eye we have been aiming at.  My brother Tom, who has overseen the production of all of our products since 1967, has without question been the man who made this a success story for us.  His skill with all that rises in an oven combined with patience, cool judgment, his love of precision, and tenacity, has allowed us to realize our goal.

The Baker’s Journal : Making Colomba Bread

In reading about the history of the Italian Easter Colomba cake I am amazed and frankly a little skeptical - but it is traceable to medieval times, a barbarian siege of the City of Pavia, and, later, Frederick Barbarosa even makes an appearance into its history! For me this noble history is merely the romantic ledged behind what is the accomplishment of 19th, 20th, and 21st century Italian bakers.  Their genius was to embrace the advances in baking science without ever losing their way, without ever forgetting that it is whole ingredients and traditional methods which make this cake so delicious and possible. It is only natural that the Colomba cake is rich in natural ingredients as well.


Our Colomba Bread-Cake (and it is truly a combination of both bread and cake) begins with butter, sugar, egg yolks, flour and a highly-specialized imported Italian yeast (known as a “natural” or “mother-starter”) .This yeast is used only in the production of Colomba Bread and its Christmas counterpart, Panettone.

After mixing only a part of the ingredients to create what is known as a “lean-dough”, the next step is when the Colomba “Vigil” begins. The dough must ferment overnight at an optimum temperature that is cool yet not cold. In doing so, the unique flavor and natural enzymes are released.

Next day, the “sponge-dough”, as it is now called, is enriched with more sugar, eggs, and butter: this is known as the “second-mix”.  For this Second or “Final mix” dried tart-cherries (US origin), candied oranges, candied citron, candied pumpkin, and amarena cherries (all imported from Italy) are added. The dough is then allowed to ferment (or “rest”) for at least five more hours in a mixing bowl.

During this time our eyes are not so much on the timer but on the dough itself: Colomba dough is particularly sensitive to the cold weather and spring-time in Niagara Falls can go from sunny to snow-storm in less than an hour.

The dough is cut or “scaled” on a “buttered bench”: this is a long baker’s table coated in butter to prevent the dough from sticking AND which eliminates the need for extra flour (which would overly-toughen the dough). https://youtu.be/XNLWeicJ5w0 The dough is then divided into two pieces which are joined in the baking-mold. Before baking, the newborn Colomba doves spend two-to-three hours in a steam or “proof” box, where the humidity and temperature are carefully calibrated so that the unique Italian yeast will cultivate properly.

Out of the steam-box—but still not yet into the oven!—the Colomba loaves receive an icing or “glassa” on top: this is a delicious paste made from crushed almond flour, sugar, and egg-whites. Applying the glassa to the delicate risen dough is messy and challenging, as rough treatment can de-gas (that is, collapse) the dough.  It is worth the effort as it turns into a delectable baked-on frosting.

Each Colomba bread is then studded with whole almonds and sprinkled with large-grain, white-pearl sugar, another Italian product I found in my travels in Italy.

To let the Colomba “recover” from this final adornment, it receives another trip to the steam-box for a “final-proofing”. My brother Tom hovers around it (and a million other jobs). When it actually goes into the oven is a judgment call which he makes, but the timing and temperature are pure chemistry: baked for forty-five minutes to an hour and checked with a thermometer.

At this point the entire baking area is filled with an aroma that is-- well, it may sound cliché-- but it is a heavenly aroma! I personally can’t stop peaking at them in the oven as they rise and rise in their molds, higher than you would every believe them to grow. The glassa turns a shiny gold and it seems a miracle to me that that yellow sticky dough covered in greyish topping could transform into such a beautiful creation. 

If your mouth is watering and eager to taste our Easter Colomba bread, you’ll still have to wait (along with our bakers!) at least another eight-to-ten hours while they cool completely. The cooling—like all the other steps in the Colomba process—cannot be rushed since the temperature must be the same throughout the bread before it can be wrapped.

However, once wrapped, the Colomba bread will last up to six months and it will not mold!

It has been quite adventure with a happy ending as we got the Colomba bread we were after—not in Italy, but right here in Niagara Falls, New York!

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  • Michael DiCamillo
Comments 17
  • Priscilla Rich
    Priscilla Rich

    Family stories are the best. While my DNA shows a small amount of italian in the mix, I love ordering from you because: my mom was raised in the Adirondacks, and more recently, our daughter lived in the Finger Lakes. That got us on a trip to Toronto, going through – Niagara Falls NY. So glad you send your delicious products out to those of us far away. Really appreciate YOUR family story, on the Columba bread – especially for our current challenge. Thank you all!

  • Maria Casares Webber
    Maria Casares Webber

    I thoroughly enjoyed this article and I am fascinated not only with the process and the care and love put into it but also with the final product. It sounds delicious and a tradition worthwhile to keep.
    I would love to get one to.celebrate Easter with, we always get panettone both for Christmas and Easter but this year I would like to try a Colomba Cake.
    Where do I order one, is there a website? I would love to get a couple as everyone will be home for Easter.
    Thank you for your informed article on this wonderful cake and please tell me where to get one.

  • Margaret Hojnacki
    Margaret Hojnacki

    What a very interesting story about the process of making Colomba bread. I cannot wait to try it. I’ll be buying one for Easter.

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