Italian Star Bread Secrets Revealed! Make Bakery-Quality Loaves.

Posted on 02 December 2019

For decades I’ve sought this holy grail of bread recipes. Star bread, the American cousin of what I consider the finest bread in Italy, is the stuff of legends. Italian bakers introduced it to Springfield, Massachusetts, and a few other places in the state about a hundred years ago. Specialty Italian bakeries hooked customers on the twisty-shaped loaves, also called “horn bread” or “bolognese bread.” Those bakeries have dwindled to a handful, and star bread always sells out—often before it reaches the shelves.

What makes it so special? The hard, golden brown, impossibly smooth crust has the crunch of a dry breadstick. In contrast, the soft crumb inside is fine, compact, and as bright as a Hollywood smile. Once you bite in, you can’t stop. The flavor and textures are pure delight. And who can resist the shape that offers not two, but four crunchy ends?

My husband Dan grew up in Springfield, and his family celebrated holidays and special occasions with star bread. They would cut small rounds from the horns and make little sandwiches of thinly sliced Italian cheeses and cold meats for appetizers. But why shouldn’t we have it year-round for sopping olive oil, mopping up pasta sauce, and for everything a good Italian bread is designed to do?

Star bread is getting harder to find. Around here, nobody has ever heard of it. So what choice do I have but to bake it myself?

There’s one serious catch. No recipe. Not in any cookbooks. Nowhere. Even Google comes up short. In 2008, The Boston Globe ran a feature on “horn bread” and included a recipe that apparently nobody tested. An owner of one of the bakeries in the story wrote back, “The recipe given in your paper is missing an ingredient and an important processing step—but my lips are sealed!”

So yes, there’s a secret. And nobody’s talking. Omerta.

Over the years, I’ve cornered commercial bakers for advice. One told me it’s just Vienna bread dough (false), but I simply couldn’t make it at home because I needed “special equipment” (misleading).

The owner of a family-run bakery in Agawam recently responded with a look so steely cold I was afraid the loaves around her would flash freeze. “Sure you can have our recipe,” she said as if I held her at gunpoint, “but only if you pay big money for it.”

I thank her, though, because had she spilled her family secret I would not be sharing it with you now. I would be in on the code of silence. No Recipephany. But in the face of this stonewalling, Dan and I set out to find the secret recipe on our own.

Dan tracked down star bread’s illustrious ancestor, Coppia Ferrarese. It comes from the Emilia-Romagna region in Northern Italy and dates back to the 13th Century. The name means “Ferrara couple” because bakers form the bread by joining two rolls of dough at their centers–“coupling” them. This regional treasure, like Parmigiano-Reggiano, has earned PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) status and must meet strict regulations set by the EU to carry the name Coppia Ferrarese.

This is the bread brought to Springfield by the Italian bakers. What started out as an elegantly slim, sculpted bread, evolved into a plump “H”-shaped loaf in Springfield. (Oddly, it has never had a star shape.)

Then Dan found the Coppia Ferrarese PGI official document. This is the master recipe that reveals all. After a bit of deciphering, I can now tell you what I see as the two key secrets to star bread.

First, the dough is hard and somewhat dry, the opposite of what I had expected to make such a soft crumb. Imagine stiff playdough with a silky finish. Once you’ve mixed the dough, put away the flour. There will be none on your hands, counters, floor…you get the picture. The small amount of oil and shortening (Italians use lard) makes the dough downright fun to handle and the process incredibly tidy.

Second—and here’s the revelation—you need to roll this non-sticky, pliable dough many times through a “special metal cylinder” to compress it and make the surface smooth. How does a home baker manage that? We dragged out our trusty pasta machine. It did the trick—a fine substitute for the massive rolling machines at bakeries. This was the Big Breakthrough.

I cobbled together this Coppia Ferrarese-star bread hybrid using primarily the PGI guidelines. I tried to simplify the recipe for home bakers like me (although it’s no Raegan’s No-Knead Focaccia). For instance, Coppia Ferrarese is a sourdough bread, but since I don’t have a 45 percent hydrated sourdough starter lying around (do you?), I fudged it. While this bread is shaped like Coppia Ferrarese, it produces a loftier loaf more like Springfield’s star bread. Thanks to the pasta machine, it captures the signature textures of both.

I hope you try it and come away a Star Baker. If you don’t have a pasta machine, well, sorry. Hand rolling may work, but I haven’t tried. I’m still experimenting, so please let me know how it goes and if you’ve got any suggestions. Let’s see if together we can preserve this distinctive special-occasion bread. It’s so fun and rewarding to make, you might find that baking it creates its own joyful occasion.

Star Bread
(Modified Coppia Ferrarese)
1. Starter
Mix the night before baking:

  • 3/4 teaspoon instant yeast (SAF-instant red label, or Fleishmann’s RapidRise)
  • 1 1/2 ounces warm water (45 ml)
  • 3/4 cup bread flour (100 g)

Stir ingredients in a medium bowl, then knead briefly to combine. If it is so dry it won’t come together into a ball, add a few drops of water. It should look and feel like pliable bread dough. Cover bowl loosely with plastic wrap and let sit overnight.

NOTE: This makes about 50 percent more than you need for this recipe. If you want to make enough starter for next time you make the bread, double this and freeze what’s leftover and use within a few weeks.
2. Star Bread Recipe and Process
Special equipment: Pasta machine.
Suggested: Heavy-duty stand mixer; kitchen scale.
I derived this recipe from a formula that specified weight, not volume. For accurate dough hydration, I recommend using a scale.
Makes 2 loaves, each about 15 ounces before baking, and about 13 1/2 ounces after baking. Recipe easily halves.

  • ½ cup starter (100 g, or about about 3.5 ounces) Use recipe above.
  • 4 cups bread flour (500 g)  (Weighing works best.)
  • 1 teaspoon instant yeast (SAF-instant red label, or Fleishmann’s RapidRise)
  • 6 ounces cold water* (180 ml, which is also 180 g), plus up to 3 tablespoons more
  • 3 tablespoons shortening (38 g)
  • 5 teaspoons (yes teaspoons—it’s more exact) olive oil (20 ml)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon diastatic malt powder (available from King Arthur Flour)
    *Use cold water in the stand mixer so the dough won’t heat up. If kneading by hand, use tepid water.
  1. Tear starter into a few pieces and combine with all other ingredients in a large bowl. Knead by hand for about 25 minutes until dough is smooth and elastic. Or, knead in a heavy-duty stand mixer using the dough hook for about 20 minutes. This is a hard dough, so it will be dry at first and will take a long time to cohere. Add drops of water near the end as you knead to keep it pliable, up to 3 tablespoons. You may even want to wet your hands a bit to keep the surface from breaking. The dough will be slightly elastic, but won’t be stretchy. It will feel more like pasta dough than bread dough.
  2. Cover bowl loosely with plastic wrap and proof dough in a warm place for 45 minutes. It will relax and get easier to handle.
  3. Cut dough into quarters, and form each quarter roughly into a strip. Run through the pasta machine at the thickest setting. Fold and repeat for a total of 15-20 passes. (We shoot for 15, but average about 17 passes because sometimes the dough tears and needs extra smoothing.) The dough strips should get very smooth and each will measure around 2 1/2 inches wide by 24 inches long when done.
  4. For each loaf, roll up two strips by hand and join them in the center. Follow this video explaining the steps.
  5. Repeat for the second loaf.
  6. Place each on an ungreased cookie or baking sheet. Cover loaves with plastic wrap and proof for 70-90 minutes (or a half hour longer if your room is cool). They will grow, but not quite double.
  7. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 435 degrees convection bake, or 450 degrees regular bake.
  8. Bake one at a time in the center rack of the oven 18-20 minutes. Rotate sheet midway. Lower heat to 425 convection after 10 minutes if it is getting too dark too fast. The loaf is done when it turns golden brown and sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom. Also, a cake tester should come out clean. Cool on a wire rack. Both dough and baked bread freeze well.
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19 responses to Italian Star Bread Secrets Revealed! Make Bakery-Quality Loaves.

  • Thank you. Your recipe nailed it. I grew up with this bread, we got it in Plymouth, MA and it was the only way for us to eat salami and our bean soup.

    The starter dough smells wonderful the next day.

    THANK YOU!!!!!

    • Diane Brody says:

      Hey Joan,
      I am beyond happy that it worked for you! Thank you for your comment, it means a lot to get such good feedback from a fellow star-bread lover. Do you have any improvements you’d make, or issues? When I told my 97-year-old and 100-year-old aunts we made it they were thrilled. YAY!
      Best,
      Diane

  • David says:

    I have been looking for a recipe for this for nearly 20 years! My own research lead me to the Coppia Ferrarese as the most likely ancestor but the method seemed an out of reach mystical secret. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU. You are going to make so many people with Western MA roots SO HAPPY. I’m trying this as soon as possible.

    • Diane Brody says:

      Thank you, David! It might a fun project to do while you’re sheltered in place. Believe it or not, it isn’t hard to do. But getting the amount of water right is a little tricky. If the strips seem really dry when I’m rolling them up, I sometimes just sprinkle a little water on them to keep them from de-laminating. Could you please let me know how it goes? Again, thanks, and I hope it goes well! Best, Diane

      • David says:

        Diane,

        It took me forever to get bread flower and diastatic malt powder with COVID wreaking havoc on super market supply chains, but I finally tried this out and there is no question that you’ve cracked the recipe for Star Bread!

        It turned out looking and smelling like I remember, with the hard exterior crust and soft internal crumb I remember. So, as far as I’m concerned, you’ve unlocked one of the secrets of the baking universe – thank you.

        I didn’t get the rise I was hoping for and my shaping needs practice. I also ended up having to use butter instead of shortening and I’m sure that had an impact. I think there’s probably room to experiment with how you feed it through the pasta maker vs. how many times too. I think I ended up with something closer to the Coppia Ferrarese than the shape I remember (which is what you have pictured).

        Did you ever try using all of the starter and increasing the rest of the ingredients accordingly but still only making two loaves? I was thinking that might get to the size I recall.

        Thank you!

        • Diane Brody says:

          Hey David,

          I’m so glad to hear you made it and that it worked!

          Are you using SAF instant yeast? If you’re using regular active dry yeast, try using a little more than called for in the recipe. SAF is a rapid rise yeast, and may give you more height than active dry during the proofing.

          It may also be that your dough is too dry. Adding a little more water might activate more gluten and it might help it rise more. I always err on the dry side because I’m afraid the dough will be too soft or (heaven forbid) too sticky to go through the pasta machine. But maybe just a LITTLE more water might do the trick.

          I have not tried butter, so I don’t know how it would differ. Coppia Ferrarese calls for lard, but the last star bread I bought had liquid soybean oil and shortening as ingredients. Shortening makes for higher cookies than butter does, so maybe there’s something about how it works with the flour that increases height. Butter has some water in it, but I don’t know if that would make a difference.

          As for using more of the starter, that sounds like a good idea. As long as you have a sense of what the dough should feel like, you can definitely experiment. And I’d love to know what you discover!

          Thanks so much for letting me know how it came out. Stay well!

          Best,
          Diane

  • Zanotti says:

    I visited every deli and bakery in the LA area and nobody knows about this bread out here that I also grew up with in Plymouth Massachusetts. Clyde’s and Balboni’s I had the best bread that we picked up every weekend.

    I’m going to try this recipe myself though I’ve never baked any kind of bread except for banana bread.

    • Diane Brody says:

      Yes, Star Bread is incredibly regional. Good luck on trying to make it. Even though it’s relatively easy, it does take lots of kneading and patience with a very dry dough. Would you want to try a really easy yeast bread first? Raegan’s Focaccia is the gateway drug to breadmaking http://recipephany.com/?p=3751. No work, and the result is so satisfying. Anyway, let me know if you need any help. Email recipephany@longlast.com and I’ll try to see what I can do! Best, Diane

  • Zanotti says:

    Plymouth also had another type of bread called gnocch bread. I’m not sure of the spelling. This was a round very crusty bread that was only about an inch thick. It had bits of meat and spice on top. Clyde’s in Plymouth sold it in these white bags that the oil from the bread would bleed through pretty quickly. Best when eaten warm and would go stale within a couple of days. But it was so good it never lasted that long. Does anyone ever heard of this bread and know a recipe?

  • Valorie says:

    My husband was talking about how much he missed Star Bread. With all the baking I’m doing I thought it deserved a “Google”. I ran across this!! I couldn’t believe it! His family is from Agawam and he grew up in Southwick. I read the part about the local bakery and he said, “Ooo I wonder if it was Balboni’s!!?? So now I have to make this…Thanks!!! ~Val, Denver, CO

    • Diane Brody says:

      Hi Valorie,
      I’m so glad you landed on the recipe, and I really hope it comes through for you. Let me know if you have any questions or issues, and it would be great to compare notes on how yours comes out. It really isn’t that difficult, it’s just different from any other bread recipe I’ve run into.

      And yes, it was Balboni’s.

      Thanks for writing, and good luck!
      Best,
      Diane

  • Matt Gordon says:

    Diane, thank you so much for posting this. I, too, have been looking for this recipe for many years. We enjoyed star bread while growing up in Westfield, when our dad brought it home from Springfield. I made two loaves today, and followed the recipe exactly. The only difference was that I had to use a rolling pin. The taste was spot on!! Brought back so many good memories. Thank you! My shaping needs a lot of practice…

    • Diane Brody says:

      Hey Matt,
      Thanks for your feedback–I haven’t heard from anyone using a rolling pin, so I admire your perseverance! I know what you mean about shaping. I rely on my husband, an architect whose father was born in Italy, to make the loaves, but I’m getting better with practice. If you look at images of bakery star bread online, you’ll see some that aren’t very pretty. Anyway, thank you so much for commenting and please spread the word about Recipephany. Happy baking!
      Best,
      Diane

  • John Moruzzi says:

    Diane, Is there anywhere that I can purchase star bread?
    I grew up in Bridgewater Ma and have relatives in Plymouth and Kingston. Sundays, after mass, we would go visit and always came home with star bread and some great Italian cold cuts. If I could get some, I think I would feel 16 again.

    Respectfully,

    John Moruzzi

    • Diane Brody says:

      Hey John,
      The only place I know of right now is Balboni’s, 25 King Street in Agawam, Massachusetts. There may be others, but I only know of the Springfield area.
      If you can make this recipe, or find someone who would try, you might be surprised at how deliciously authentic it tastes. I’d appreciate if you’d spread the word about Recipephany and this recipe!
      Please let me know if you find any other bakeries.
      And thanks for writing!
      Best,
      Diane

  • Mike Campfield says:

    I live in San Jose, CA now, but I am from Springfield, and searched for “Italian star bread” on a whim after watching an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives with some good looking Italian bread. Was surprised to see Springfield mentioned in the second sentence. I had no idea the bread was so regional. Star bread was just one of the breads mom might pick up if we were having Italian food – not sure where she got it from – but I always loved it with butter and dipping into sauce. Yum! I don’t know if I’ll make it – I’ve never made bread before. I had recently seen something online or on TV about Detroit-style Pizza, another regional food. Kind of a Sicilian pan pizza, and I have made that about 3 times in the last month – after picking up the special pan and Cheese on Amazon. Yeast was impossible to get, so I got a one pound brick of SAF. With all that yeast, I may bake more dough foods, although I have been trying to go low-carb. Check out the pizza on SeriousEats.

    • Diane Brody says:

      Hey Mike,
      It’s amazing how star bread gets imprinted on Springfield natives. Its regionality must be matched in Italy, where Coppia Ferrarese gets special status. The only bread my husband and I have ever had that came close to star bread was in a restaurant in Bologna decades ago. It was shaped like an octopus, with bread-stick-like tentacles, and it must have been made out of dough like this.

      Good for you in getting SAF yeast and making pizza! You can freeze the yeast, you know, and it will keep well over a year. Try Raegan’s No-Knead Focaccia (http://recipephany.com/?p=3751) if you really want easy, great results.

      Actually, this recipe is not hard. It just requires a pasta machine and some heavy-duty kneading (I prefer doing it by hand). But the result is so magical, it might take you back to your youth.

      Thanks so much for taking the time to write, and please spread the word about Recipephany’s star bread recipe to family and friends. Maybe one of them will bake it for you!

      Best,
      Diane

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