Early last year, The Italian Trade Agency invited me to Italy’s Lombardy region to experience some of its foods, wine and culture. I fell in love with the gorgeous Valtellina Valley, about a two-hour drive north of Milan, cradled between the Alps on one side and vineyards on the other.
There we were hosted at La Fiorida, an agriturismo farm like no other I’ve ever seen. A Michelin-starred restaurant, La Prêsef, serves the hotel’s guests, and a working dairy makes cheese daily. In addition to the spectacular and inventive food, the kitchen bakes an enormous array of breads made with intriguing blends of flours and some with a treasured sourdough culture.
One non-sourdough bread, served at breakfast the morning we departed, is bisciola (pronounced bee-she-OH-la), a not-too-sweet yeast loaf absolutely crammed with walnuts and raisins. I couldn’t get enough of it and found myself eating it not just with jam and butter but with cheese and salami, too. I just had to have the recipe!
So I emailed the hotel and they graciously complied. But what I got was merely a list of ingredients with virtually no instructions except for the baking temperature and time. And the yield was enormous! The original quantity of flour was 2 kilos, and the weight of walnuts and raisins 2 kilos each! I had to scale the amounts down eight-fold to make the recipe at home.
If you search for bisciola online you’ll find versions with dried figs, rye flour, and even candied orange peel (!). And some recipes are not nearly as packed with fruit and nuts as the La Fiorida version. Here’s what I think: Use any dried fruits and nuts you like. I’ve made bisciola with dried huckleberries, blueberries, cranberries and cherries. Toasted pecans are a great substitute for walnuts.
Because the bread keeps so well, why not bake a few batches to freeze and serve during the winter months and to give away as gifts. And, I promise you, your kitchen will smell heavenly.
Bisciola La Fiorida
This amazing bread is not very sweet, and the dough is a dream to work with. But how to get all the nuts and fruit into the dough? Here’s my method: Because the risen dough is soft and very stretchy, I decided to incorporate the walnuts and raisins into the dough in small amounts, rolling the dough around each addition before putting more nuts and fruit onto the dough. Details are in the recipe. This recipe makes two round loaves, each weighing about a pound. Bisciola keeps very well at room temperature for at least a week. Just slice off what you need and keep the rest well-wrapped. The bread freezes beautifully for a few months.
Makes 2 loaves, each weighing a bit more than 1 pound.
½ cup warm water
1 package (2¼ teaspoons) instant or active dry yeast
1 tablespoon honey
10 ounces (2 cups, or 280 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour
⅓ cup sugar
½ teaspoon table salt
6 tablespoons (3 ounces) cold unsalted butter
1 tablespoon milk
8 ounces chopped walnuts
8 ounces dark raisins
Egg glaze: 1 egg beaten with 1 teaspoon water and a pinch of salt
1. Stir together the warm water, yeast and honey in a cup or small bowl. Let stand about 10 minutes until yeast dissolves and becomes very foamy.
2. Meanwhile, put the flour, sugar and salt into the bowl of a stand mixer and stir to combine. Cut the butter into a few pieces and add to the bowl. Attach the flat beater and mix on the lowest speed for about 3 minutes, until the butter is in very small pieces. To do this step by hand, combine the flour, sugar, and salt in a large bowl, add the pieces of butter, and use a pastry blender to cut the butter into the dry ingredients until the consistency is very fine.
3. If using the mixer, switch to the dough hook and scrape in the dissolved yeast and the milk. Mix on low speed just until the dough gathers into a mass. If the dough is too dry and doesn’t gather together, add a bit more milk. Increase speed to medium and knead 5 minutes. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface and knead by hand to form a smooth, round ball, about 30 seconds.
4. If making by hand, scrape the dissolved yeast into the dry ingredients and add the milk. Mix with a wooden spoon until the dough comes together. If the dough is too dry and doesn’t gather together, add a bit more milk. Beat vigorously with the spoon about 5 minutes to make a smooth, elastic dough. If you prefer, knead the dough on a lightly floured surface for about 10 minutes. Whichever method you’ve chosen, the final dough should be soft, supple, and not sticky.
5. Lightly grease a medium bowl and put in the dough. Cover tightly and let the dough rise at room temperature until doubled, about 2 hours. If your kitchen is cold, put the bowl of dough on an oven rack in the center position and set a pan with very hot water on the rack below.
6. To shape the bisciola, remove the risen dough from the bowl — it will feel very soft and stretchy and non-sticky — and set it on an unfloured surface. Using both hands, slowly and gently stretch the dough into a rectangle about 18-by-12-inches. The short side should be near you. The dough will be thin. Combine the walnuts and raisins.
7. Sprinkle some of the raisin/walnut combination about 2 inches in from the end of the dough nearest you, and fold the uncovered edge of dough — the bare dough closest to you — over the fruit and nuts. Sprinkle some more of the fruit and nuts onto the dough surface near the first addition and fold dough to cover. Repeat until all the raisins and walnuts are covered by dough. You’ll have a sausage-like shape. Now here’s the fun part. Squeeze and knead the dough sausage vigorously to make sure the nuts and raisins are evenly distributed in the dough.
8. Cut the dough in half crosswise and shape each piece into a ball. Pinch cut edges to seal well. No matter how careful you are, some walnuts and raisins may poke through the top of the dough.
9. Line a large baking sheet with parchment and space the dough balls several inches apart on the paper. Cover loosely with a kitchen towel and let the bisciola rise for about 45 minutes.
10. Meanwhile, set a heavy cookie sheet on an oven rack adjusted to the center position and preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Uncover the bisciola, brush with egg glaze, and set the baking pan onto the cookie sheet. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes — tent loosely with foil after 20 minutes — until the loaves are deep golden brown. An instant read thermometer inserted into the center of the bread should register 200 to 205 degrees F. Cool breads completely on a wire rack. When cool, wrap securely and store at room temperature or freeze.
11. To serve, cut into slices with a serrated knife. Butter, jam, cold cuts, or cream cheese are excellent with bisciola.