Julia della Croce, who blogs authoritatively about Italian food, first tried the dense, sweet bisciola (pronounced "bee-shee-OH-la") in Italy's Valtellina Valley. Known as biscieùla, pan di fich (“fig bread”), panun, or panettone valtellinese, it's denser than the brioche-like pannetone you'd find in Milan.
"It appears that we have Napoleon to thank for this little bread, which goes back to 1797 when he stopped in the valley on his sweep through northern Italy. Having a sweet tooth, he asked his cook to make him whatever confection he could whip up, even if there were only dried fruits, nuts, and the usual staples of the valley available, and voilá, bisciola was born."
Ms. della Croce asked Food Guy Greg Patent if he'd like to try to reproduce the treat. Armed only with an ingredients list whose quantities would feed a football team - and no instructions - it took trial, error, and six tries to hit the sweet spot. The basic recipe is below, but you can view step-by-step photos at Greg's blog, The Baking Wizard.
Bisciola (Greg Patent)
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1/4 cup warm water (110˚F)
1 pkg (2 1/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast
1/3 cup warm water
1/3 cup sugar
1 tablespoon honey
10 ounces (2 cups, or 285 grams, unbleached all-purpose flour (I use King Arthur)
1/2 teaspoon table salt
6 tablespoons (3 ounces) unsalted butter, very soft, cut into 6 pieces
8 ounces chopped walnuts
8 ounces dark raisins
Egg glaze: 1 egg beaten with 1 teaspoon water and a pinch of salt
Dissolve the 1/4 teaspoon sugar in the warm water. Sprinkle in the yeast—no need to stir—and let stand until very foamy, about 10 minutes.
In a small bowl, stir together the 1/3 cup warm water and 1/3 cup sugar. When sugar is dissolved, stir in the honey until it dissolves.
In a stand mixer, stir together the flour and salt. Attach the dough hook. Add the dissolved yeast and start the motor on low. With the machine running, gradually add the sugar/honey liquid. Mix until a cohesive dough forms and no dry flour remains, about 2 minutes. Scrape down the bowl as needed. Add up to 1 tablespoon more water if dough is too dry to come together in one mass.
Increase speed to medium. Add the butter 1 tablespoon at a time and beat until fully incorporated before the next addition. The butter additions will take 4 to 5 minutes. Don’t rush this step. Scrape the bowl. Continue kneading until the dough is smooth and elastic and cleans the sides of the mixer bowl, 10 to 12 minutes on medium speed. The dough will be soft, supple, and not sticky.
Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface and knead by hand to form a smooth, round ball, about 30 seconds. Lightly grease the mixer bowl and put in the dough, seam side down. Cover tightly and let the dough rise until doubled, about 2 hours.
To shape the breads, stretch the dough into a rectangle about 17 x 14-inches on an unfloured surface with the short side near you. The dough will be thin. Sprinkle some of the raisin/walnut combination near the far end of the dough and fold the dough to cover 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. Squeeze and knead vigorously to make sure the nuts and raisins are evenly distributed in the dough.
Cut the dough in half and shape each piece into a ball and pinch undersides to seal. Some walnuts and raisins may poke through the top of the dough.
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.
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 with foil after 20 minutes—until loaves are deep golden brown. An instant read thermometer inserted into the center of the bread should register 200 to 205 degrees F. Cool completely on a wire rack. When cool, wrap securely and store at room temperature or freeze.
Makes 2 bisciola, each weighing about 1 pound.