Perugia is not just proud of its chocolate, Etruscan artifacts and the Umbria Jazz festival: this provincial capital of Umbria also boasts not just one but three patron saints! Legend tells us that one of them, San Costanzo, first bishop, was buried outside of the city’s Roman walls after his decapitation in the 2nd century. Celebrations start the night before his feast day, January 29, with the luminaria, the candlelit procession to the Church of San Costanzo, built on the site of his martyrdom.
On the Sunday after his feast, i Perugini gather at a solemn High Mass celebrated in his honor in the Cathedral and then throng the eighty stands at the traditional open market, la Fiera, which always follows a saint’s feast day. The Fiera di San Costanzo fills Borgo XX Giugno, the street heading to his church, San Costanzo.
The stands selling dolci compete in proudly offering the best (the competition is on!) torcolo di San Costanzo, a ring-like cake made with pine nuts, raisins, and candied fruits. According to popluar tradition, the faithful who buried him after his martyrdom, put a ring of flowers around this neck to hide the ugly wound; hence, the ring-shaped sweet to honor him. A city document, from 1595, even defines the required ingredients (see the recipe below!). An incision of a pentagon is made on the bread to represent the five city gates of Perugia. For the past few years, the city of Perugia has celebrated this feast with a competition among all the area’s bakers for the production of il miglore torcolo. In the morning, all the citizens are invited to join in a “comparative tasting”. I remember the year 31 bakers produced 310 torcoli, which disappeared in minutes!
Il torcolo was once savored only on the feast of San Costanzo and made only in the home, but today every Perugino has his favorite baker and il torcolo is in bakery windows throughout the year. Following another tradition – lost until a few decades ago – an engaged couple visits the Church of San Costanzo to stare at the Saint’s image. If the Saint winks at the young woman (and only she can see the wink), the couple will be married within the year.
If not, the young man consoles them both with a gift to her a of ring-shaped (!) sweet, il torcolo …and hopes for the Saint’s wink next January!
This recipe is thanks to my friend, some-time Perugia resident and top chef, cooking teacher, Christine Hickman (see www.sonomarcella.com)
IL TORCOLO di SAN COSTANZO
The Torcolo di San Costanzo is a rich raisin, pinon, and citron-laden, sweet bread created in honor of San Costanzo, one of the patron saints of Perugia, Italy. Executed on January 29 during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, his memory is celebrated every year in Perugia with various festivities, one of them being a competition amongst the various bakeries of Perugia for the best Torcolo. It is also traditional for a man to give this bread to his lover, and if the statue of San Costanzo winks at you on the day the bread is presented, the couple will marry within a year. Always available in the Perugia bakeries, it is a delectable treat any day of the year, warmed for breakfast or as a spuntino (snack), spread with mascarpone.
½ cup golden raisins
½ cup warm water
1 cup warm milk (110°-115° F.)
1 tablespoon active dry yeast
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2/3 cup sugar
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup finely chopped citron
½ cup finely chopped candied orange peel
½ cup toasted pine nuts
1 ½ tablespoons anise seed
Finely grated zest of 2 lemons
5-6 cups unbleached all-purpose flour or high-gluten bread flour
1 egg yolk, lightly beaten, for glaze
Place the raisins in a small bowl, cover with warm water, and let soak 30 minutes.
In a small bowl, whisk the yeast into the warm milk and set aside about 10 minutes, until bubbles begin to rise to the surface.
Pour the yeast mixture into the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, and on low speed, blend in the butter, olive oil. sugar, beaten eggs, salt, citron, orange peel, pine nuts, anise seed, lemon zest, and raisins along with their soaking liquid. Add the flour on low speed, one cup at a time, blending well after each addition. When a thick paste begins to form, switch to the dough hook and continue adding the flour until the dough begins to pull away from the sides of the mixing bowl. It will feel slightly tacky to the touch. Be careful not to add too much flour or it will be tough and dry. Continue to knead the dough 3 more minutes on medium speed.
Remove the dough from the bowl to a lightly floured surface, and knead it with your hands several times until it is smooth and elastic. Form it into a ball, place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl and cover it well with plastic wrap. Let it rise until doubled, about 2 to 3 hours.
*If mixing by hand, once all the ingredients have been incorporated knead the dough by hand on a lightly floured surface 10-12 minutes, until it is smooth and elastic. Form the dough into a ball, place it in a lightly oiled bowl and cover it well with plastic wrap. Let it rise until doubled in bulk, about 2 to 3 hours.
Punch the dough down with your fist. Transfer it to a work surface and roll it into a 24-inch-long rope. Set the dough onto a parchment-lined baking sheet, connect the ends to make a circle, pinch them together tightly to seal, cover with a towel and let rise until doubled, about 1 ½ to 2 hours.
Thirty minutes before you plan to bake, set baking stones (if available) inside the oven on the lower shelf and preheat to 400° F. If not using baking stones, adjust the oven rack to the lower third of the oven.
Just before baking, make 5 slashes along the top of the dough parallel to the outside edge, and open the cuts well. Brush the loaf with the beaten egg yolk to give it a shiny gloss.
ake 30 minutes, turn the heat down to 375° F. and bake 10 minutes longer. If the top gets too brown, cover it with aluminum foil. The bread is done when it sounds hollow when lightly tapped on the bottom.
Transfer the bread to a cooling rack and allow to cool to room temperature before serving.
May be frozen, wrapped tightly in plastic wrap, for up to 1 month.
Makes 1 large ring-shaped bread.
Christine Y. Hickman