La Colomba: Italy’s favourite Easter food

For most Italians, Easter is the second-most important family celebration after Christmas. Although like in many other places, its religious connotations have lost some significance, Easter in Italy continues to be a key moment for families to come together and celebrate. And of course, it wouldn’t be Italy if there wasn’t some great food involved. Whilst Easter customs and foods differ per region, there’s one type of food that can be found on almost any Italian table at this time of year and that’s la colomba di Pasqua.

Translated as ‘Easter dove’, la colomba pasquale is a sweet bread in the shape of a bird (what’s in a name). It’s the Easter counterpart of the Christmas panettone. In fact, the colomba is made with a dough very similar to that of panettone. The key ingredients are simple: flour, eggs, butter and natural yeast. Unlike panettone, though, the colomba typically has added nuts and candied orange peel, but no raisins. To finish things off, it is topped with almonds and pearl sugar.

A table with Colomba sweet Easter bread, zabaione cream, fruit and coffee

The real specialty, though, is in the colomba’s preparation process, which is lengthy and complex. The dough can take up to 40 hours to rise, after which it is baked and rested upside down, in order to prevent it from collapsing. The result is a light and fluffy sweet bread, almost resembling a cake. Because of its complicated recipe, many families in Italy – even the most fervent Italian home cooks – buy their colomba in store, rather than making one themselves. Some things are just better when left to professionals...

So, where lie the origins of this traditional Italian Easter bread? According to several wild legends, it can be traced back to medieval Lombardy (what is now the region around Milan). In reality, the history of the colomba is a much more recent one. The colomba as we know it today was first created and commercialised by Angelo Motta in the 1930s. Motta, a baker and entrepreneur from Milan, was looking to replicate the commercial success of the panettone during Easter. He came up with the idea of creating a version of the panettone in the shape of a dove, a symbol of peace. And so, Italy’s new favourite Easter food was born.

Today, colombas are made across Italy, in many different versions. Some of the more exquisite colombas are made by historic artisan confectioners using honest and traditional ingredients. For instance, one of Milan’s oldest confectioners – the Baj family – makes its colombas with a 100-year-old(!) mother dough.

So, if you’re looking to add a touch of Italian flavour to your table this Spring, colomba is the way to go. And if you really want to indulge, add a dash of zabaione sauce to your slice of colomba (check out Emiko Davies' very simple zabaione recipe). After all, the start of a new season is reason enough to have a little celebration with great food. Just ask any Italian.