Okay, I've started you on your levain journey, and hopefully you have a good basic idea of how to begin. But the thing about a starter is that it's a long-term relationship. Or at least it can be...
Perhaps Easter isn't the time to get fancy. Perhaps it isn't the time to try something new, but rather to stick to the old family classics. But I've always believed in expanding holiday horizons. After all, what's celebratory about a scripted table? Why not make pumpkin baklava for Thanksgiving instead of pumpkin pie? In my experience, the person who brings a pumpkin pie to the family Thanksgiving potluck takes most of it home. If you prepare something that isn't part of the usual repertoire, most are willing to give it a nibble, and if you've done well they'll be back for more.
At Easter, the standards in my family are usually deviled eggs, ham, and peas. However, I always feel the need to give my tastebuds a little jolt after a long winter of stews and soups and hearty dishes. By "jolt" I don't necessarily mean something blistering or tummy-puckering, although if your family is known for strong stomachs feel free to improvise in that direction. For me, a nice springtime jolt that I can share with my family usually involves citrus.
Lemon zest is easy to love. It lightens and brightens dishes, adding a superb layer of flavor in the process. I find lemon to be particularly nice in baked goods, which can be unremarkable and over-sweetened without a kick in the pants from some zest. I also favor candied ginger. It adds some spice, but not too much, and you get little pockets of spicy-sweetness that burst in your mouth.
This Easter, my contribution to the feast is Panettone, an Italian Easter bread. I'll wager that once you try this recipe, though, you'll be baking this lovely loaf all year long. You can improvise a little with the additions and change them with the seasons, and there's nothing saying you can't make this recipe your own. Bread is pretty forgiving when it comes to additions to the dough, and you can add whatever nuts, seeds, dried fruits and spices you prefer. I never have candied citron around, so I used candied ginger, which is easier to find. The recipe calls for 2 teaspoons of lemon zest, but I just use the zest from one whole lemon. It makes things a little easier measurement-wise, and this bread benefits from the extra citrus. As the headnote in the Joy of Cooking suggests (Page 621 in the 2006 edition), this bread can be baked in greased coffee cans. After baking, wrap the coffee cans with attractive paper, and you can give little panettone as gifts. However, these loaves can also be baked in two 9-inch tube pans or small ovenproof dishes like the ones I used (see the photo below). You can find paper baking cups for panettone in specialty baking shops, but there's no need really. The bread speaks for itself.
Combine in a medium bowl and let stand until the yeast is dissolved, about 5 minutes:
1 cup warm (105 to 115 degrees F) water
2 packages (1 1/2 tablespoons) active dry yeast
1 cup all-purpose flour
Cover this sponge and let rise about 30 minutes in a warm (75 to 85 degrees F) place.
Beat in a large bowl until soft:
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, room temperature
Gradually add and blend until light and creamy:
1/2 cup sugar
Beat in one at a time:
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon salt
Zest from one lemon
Beat in the sponge. Gradually beat in:
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
Beat the dough for 5 minutes more. Add, if desired:
(1 cup chopped nuts)
(1/4 cup golden raisins, candied orange peel, or chopped candied pineapple)
(2 tablespoons chopped candied citron)
Cover the bowl with a clean cloth and let the dough rise about 2 hours, or until almost doubled in bulk.
Punch down the dough and divide it in half. Place in 2 greased 9-inch tube pans or greased 6-cup coffee cans and let rise until puffy, about 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Lightly brush the tops of the cakes with:
If desired, combine and sprinkle on top:
(1/2 cup slivered blanched almonds)
(1/4 cup sugar)
Bake until golden, about 30 minutes. If you didn't use the almonds and sugar, spread on, if desired, after the cakes have baked and cooled:
Lemon glaze (see below)
About 1/2 cup
Beat together until smooth:
1 1/4 cups confectioner's sugar, sifted
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla