by Gina Depalma
I have a confession to make. I haven’t been to Friuli-Venezia Giulia yet, and I am particularly ashamed of this for several reasons. Friuli-Venezia Giulia is, after all, home to the Bastianich family vineyards. I also like to think that I am more adventurous than the average visitor to Italy, or even the average Italian. Friuli-Venezia Giulia is tragically under-touristed, and the thought of venturing off the beaten path should have lured me there by now. This sad state of affairs is entirely my loss. The landscape of Friuli is absolutely gorgeous, filled with gently rolling hills, rocky Alpine mountains, lush green valleys, sandy beaches, and majestic coastal cliffs. It is home to sophisticated cities, a bustling international seaport, strategic Roman ruins and quaint countryside hamlets. It is the land of truly wonderful grappa, San Daniele Proscuitto, Montasio cheese, and Italy’s best white wines. All of that being said, a pastry chef should be most ashamed of neglecting this jewel corner of Italy because it is the birthplace of a truly iconic, yeasted, sweet treasure known as Gubana.
Just as the German city of Dresden is forever tied to Stollen, the city of Cividale del Friuli is firmly connected to Gubana. This sweetly stuffed, spiraled cross between bread and a cake originated in neighboring Gorizia and over the border of Slovenia, but Cividale is its true home. This is in part due to the location of the absolute best commercial producer of Gubana, the Vogrig family bakery, which has been producing Gubane in Cividale del Friuli for nearly half a century. Gubana even has its own consortium, which ensures that all commercial producers remain true to the original recipe format and maintain specific quality standards. Home bakers have been making Gubana for centuries and even today, each family has its own twists to the traditional recipe and method, and of course, everybody’s mother makes the absolute best Gubana.
Gubana is unique in both flavor and texture. Sweet butter is folded into the dough for flakiness, the milk and eggs yield a soft, pillow-y texture, and the “oompf” from the yeast lends a light, airiness. After rising, the dough is rolled out into a flat rectangle, and spread with delicious, grappa-spiked filling of chocolate, cocoa, raisins, orange zest, nuts and spices, rolled up into a long snake and then spiraled into a turban before baking. The truly Friulian way gild the lily is to anoint a wedge of Gubana with a small splash of local grappa. Although it is enjoyed throughout the year, Gubana originated as a Christmas bread, so there is plenty of time left to master the following recipe and present your family with a traditional Friulian treat when the holidays roll around.
For the Dough:
Cut the butter into small pieces and place it in a bowl. Sprinkle over ¼ cup of the flour, and using your fingers, work the butter and flour together to make a uniform mixture. The butter should remain malleable. Shape the mixture into a 4-inch square, wrap it in plastic and set it aside in a cool place, but not in the refrigerator.
In a small bowl, whisk together the yeast and warm water to dissolve the yeast. Add a pinch of sugar and let the mixture sit until it is foamy, about 5 minutes. In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine 2 cups of the flour with the salt. Add the yeast mixture, sugar, egg and milk. Using the paddle, beat the ingredients together until smooth. Switch to the dough hook and knead in the remaining 1 ½ cups of flour until you have a smooth, elastic dough, 3 to 5 minutes. Place the dough in a greased bowl, cover it with plastic or a damp towel, and let it relax for 30 to 45 minutes.
Turn out the dough onto a well-floured board and roll it into a large rectangle, about 16x 16 inches. Sprinkle the surface with some flour. Remove the square of butter and flour from the refrigerator and place it in the middle of the rectangle of dough. Fold the left and right sides over the middle, then the top sides over that; the goal is to make a “package” of dough.
Sprinkle the work surface and the top of the dough well, as well as your rolling pin. Roll the dough in from the middle toward the top and bottom, making a long rectangle, maintaining the width but increasing the length. Fold the bottom upwards to the center, making a flap, and then fold the top over that, making an envelope. Turn the dough clockwise, so that the top flap faces the right; the dough should resemble a book. Once again, flour the work surface, the dough and the rolling pin, and repeat the rolling and folding process. You will end up with another “book” fold. Wrap the dough tightly in plastic and refrigerate it for at least 4 hours, or overnight.
For the Filling and Assembly:
Remove the dough from the refrigerator. If it was stored overnight, you will have to allow it to come to room temperature for about one hour before attempting to roll it.
To make the filling, place the almonds, walnuts, pine nuts, raisins, sugar, cocoa and spices into the bowl of a food processor and process to chop the nuts finely and thoroughly combine the mixture. Add the grappa, and orange zest and pulse to incorporate them. On a lightly floured board, roll the dough into a large rectangle, about 15 x 22 inches. Spread the filling evenly across center of the dough, leaving a 1-inch border.
Roll the dough, jellyroll style, starting from the bottom, wide side; you will wind up with a long snake. Grease a 10-inch round springform pan. Roll the “snake” into a tight coil, and lay it into the pan. Brush the dough with the remaining melted butter. Cover the dough with a towel and allow it to rise until doubled, about one hour.
Preheat the oven to 350 F degrees. Brush the surface of the dough with the beaten egg glaze. Bake the Gubana on the center rack of the oven for 45 to 50 minutes or until it is golden brown. Rotate the pan halfway through the cooking period to ensure it browns evenly. Allow the Gubana to cool for 20 minutes in the pan, then carefully remove the sides of the pan to cool it completely. To serve, slice the Gubana in wedges.