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Food & Drink: Italian Rosemary Buns for a Sticky-Sweet Easter Treat

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The Perfect Loaf is a column from software engineer-turned-bread expert (and Food52's Resident Bread Baker), Maurizio Leo. Maurizio is here to show us all things naturally leavened, enriched, yeast-risen, you name it—basically, every vehicle to slather on a lot of butter. Today, pan di ramerino, an Italian Easter-time sweet bun.

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Pan di ramerino, or rosemary bread—a sticky and sweet little bun studded with raisins—is a traditional Easter-time treat commonly found in Tuscany, in the central part of Italy. They’re remarkable because they have an uncommon ingredient woven into an enriched dough: rosemary. While we often think of the woodsy, piney herb as a savory-only affair, it sometimes finds its way into the sweeter side of things. With these sweet buns, rosemary brings a gentle backdrop of savoriness that is unique, and its flavor is the highlight of these sticky and soft buns.

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The dough for these buns can be made in a variety of ways with a variety of different enrichments, from milk to butter to extra-virgin olive oil, as I have done in my pan di ramerino recipe. All of these fats bring suppleness to the bun, and in my adaptation of this old-school pastry, I opt for a large quantity of only olive oil for extreme softness plus an added fruity and herbaceous flavor.

Let’s answer some pan di ramerino F.A.Qs. (I certainly wondered about them.)

Why add the olive oil after the initial dough-mixing?

When adding fat to dough it’s beneficial to hold back some, or all, during the initial dough mixing and strengthening. Fat—like butter, oil, or lard—impedes gluten formation due to the way it coats the proteins in flour (and their job is eventually to form gluten). By holding back some, or in this case all, of the fat in that first part, we give gluten a chance to develop and the dough to strengthen quickly and efficiently. This is why you’ll often see dough recipes instruct adding softened butter once the dough is strong enough to pass the “windowpane test.”

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These sweet buns call for a substantial amount of olive oil added to the dough, which helps make the buns bake off with a soft texture, but if the oil was added all from the start of mixing, it would take many, many minutes more to strengthen the dough sufficiently (and possibly never reach the desired gluten development).

Why sourdough?

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Pan di ramerino are typically leavened with commercial yeast, but, as I’m wont to do, I created a sourdough version where the flavors of natural fermentation are mild, yet still wholly evident. The dough isn’t fermented overnight at cold temperature, as some sourdough bread might be, which leads to minimal acidity in the final bun. But! Even though the acidity is minimal, it still brings ample flavor complexity to the dough. It’s like adding a secret layer of zing to your baked goods, much like a skilled baker might use almond or vanilla extract to heighten the flavor interplay amongst the other ingredients.

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So, since we’re using naturally leavened sourdough in this dough for rise and flavor, we need to first take a look at the other ingredients and how they might affect fermentation—the most important on the list: sugar.

Why so little sugar in the dough?

I’m not a big eater of sweets. Sure, I’ve been known to eat a doughnut or two on occasion, but for the most part, my baking recipes lean toward doughs with less sugar and little adornment at the end. However, when developing the recipe for these sweet buns, I started with the sugar a little on the high side at 15 percent to the total flour weight. For sourdough, that high sugar content directly translates to long fermentation times, as it impedes fermentation activity. Using instant yeast, especially an osmotolerant variety, which is specifically designed to thrive in high-sugar or salt environments, doesn’t have this problem—which is typically why you’ll see recipes for yeasted brioche or other bread and pastry call for a specific type of, often osmotolerant, yeast.

So what does this have to do with these little buns? When I had sugar at 15 percent to total flour, the total fermentation time required to properly ferment the dough was incredibly long, and in my cold, winter kitchen, it required an overnight bulk fermentation on the counter—far longer than I prefer to wait for buns. Further, after baking the buns, they tasted overwhelmingly sweet. While you might see instant yeasted recipes for these sweet buns have a higher sugar content, I find with sourdough, and its subtle acidic flavor built up during fermentation, all flavors are amplified (much like a gentle squeeze of lemon juice over many foods awakens the palate).

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In the end, and through subsequent testing, dropping the sugar all the way down to 6 percent of the total flour in the recipe (that’s going from 60 grams of sugar all the way down to 27) yielded a more typical bulk fermentation time of 4 hours, plus a shorter final proof of 3 hours. Bonus: the flavor was spot on—buns that are a touch sweet, savory, and with a gentle pop from the acidity in the dough.

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Wait—Are they hot cross buns?

While I admit these small, sticky buns do look somewhat similar to the crisscrossed Easter treat, these pan di ramerino couldn’t be more different, both in flavor and texture. Hot cross buns have a completely are spicier, with nutmeg, cinnamon, and sometimes allspice. They’re typically softer, given the addition of butter and milk in the dough. While hot cross buns are of course sweet (especially with their simple syrup glaze), the flavor is where hot cross buns go left and pan di ramerino goes right. The fruity olive oil and piney rosemary notes in pan di ramerino puts them in a class of their own.

I hate raisins! Can I use another dried fruit in these buns?

Raisins are without a doubt the traditional fruit for these sweet buns, but I could see so many additions working very well with this dough. In taking cues from hot cross buns, try adding soaked and drained Zante currants, which are like mini-raisins after all. I could also see proper currants (the small black or red berry) working well in these buns, which would bring tartness and intensity not found in raisins. If adding proper currants, I’d likely half the amount added to the dough so as not to overwhelm. I’m also keen on trying these with dried and chopped apricots (a favorite dried fruit of mine) which go very well with rosemary and other herbs.

What would serve with a warm batch of pan di ramerino? Let us know in the comments!

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