Italian Easter Bread--A Tradition that Captures the Meaning of Easter

     Each year on Holy Saturday, we have a family tradition. The making of Italian Easter Bread. This mildy sweet breakfast bread with its creamy, sweet glaze and five colored eggs poking up is a symbol of the Risen Christ. For our family, for my parents before me, and for my grandparents before them, it was a sacred Holy Saturday tradition to prepare the bread for Easter morning.  Much like Christ's body was prepared for burial--only to rise on that first Easter morning long ago.

     As I knead the sticky mixture of flour, eggs, yeast, and other ingredients with the heels of my hand, I can hear my mother's voice say, "...add just a touch of flour...keep it warm by pressing in...there, now it's smooth and elastic."  A ball of dough ready to rise in a warm place.  Tucked in the oven above a steamy pan of water, the yeast will make that ball rise to brush the dish towels blanketing the bowl.

     When my mother baked bread, the dough would percolate overnight in a bowl draped with a heavy covering.  The bowl balanced on a chair above the floor furnace for warmth. Sometimes, the process began late on Good Friday.  Sometimes, it started on Holy Saturday and finished early Easter morning when we awoke to the savoriness of freshly baked bread wafting through the house.

     In our home, while the dough rises in our oven, I carefully remove five fresh eggs from the carton.  Fragile as glass, they will be swirled gently in purple, green, hot pink, yellow, and orange colors from the Easter kit. Our sons used to help with this part but I think they'll be busy this year. Handled with care, the eggs are then set to dry in the holes punched out of the coloring kit.

       After the dough has risen once, it is removed from the oven and anise, raisins, and almonds are kneaded in to enhance the dough's flavor.  Rolled into two long ropes, the dough is braided.  The brightly colored fragile eggs are tucked between the braided strands and the dough is ready to rise again.

     At breakfast on Easter morning, my husband gingerly lifts the bread and with a knife carves a cross on the bottom of the loaf.  Through this action, we are reminded that because of the cross of Good Friday we can participate in the Rising that changes our lives.

     Traditions and love are the golden threads that tie one generation to the next. Baking bread, coloring eggs, gathering round the family table to give thanks, praying together. These intentional times shared and spent together speak meaning to our hearts and leaven the dough of life through the generations.  Traditions add flavor to life.


     As I have mentioned so often before, when I prepare a recipe that captures the flavor of our heritage, I often have had to rely on a recipe from a newspaper article or magazine. My family did not bake with recipes. It was all from scratch and how you remembered making it before--how it felt in your hand or tasted that determined how much of an ingredient was added. A little of this, a little of that.

     So here is the recipe taken from the Los Angeles Times Food Section, eons ago.

2 and 1/4 to 3 and 1/4 Cups flour
1/4 C sugar
1 tsp salt
1 package dry yeast
2/3 cup milk
2 TBLS butter
2 eggs
1/2 C raisins
1/4 C chopped blanched almonds 
1/2 tsp anise seed
5 tinted unshelled raw eggs
     Combine 1 cup flour, sugar, salt and yeast in a large bowl. Combine milk and butter and place over low heat until liquid is warm (butter does not need to melt). I use a yeast thermometer to test the temp of the butter. It should be between  105 and 115 degrees. Gradually add to dry ingredients and beat 2 min. at medium speed of mixer, scraping the bowl occasionally. Add 2 eggs (make sure they are not ice cold out of the refrigerator) and enough flour to make a soft dough (usually almost 2 more cups). Knead on a floured surface until dough is smooth and elastic, about 8-10 minutes. Place in a warm, greased bowl and turn to grease top. Cover and let rise in warm place until doubled in bulk, about 2 hours.
     This is where I place the towel-covered bowl containing the dough into the oven on a rack above a large 9x13 pan filled with boiling water. I do not turn on the oven first to make it warm in there. 
     After the dough has doubled in size (about 2 hours), punch down the dough and turn out onto a floured surface. While you let the dough rest, covered, for about 10 minutes, combine raisins, almonds and anise seed. 
     Knead the fruit mixture into the dough. Divide dough in halves (lengthwise, rolling each piece into a rope about 14 inches long. Twist ropes together loosely to form a braided ring on a baking pan without sides. I do not grease the baking sheet first, although it does call for that.
     Place the eggs in at the twists in the braids. Brush the bread with melted butter.
     Cover the bread again with a light weight towel and let it rise (just like above) until it has doubled. About 1-1 and 1/2 hours. Remove from the oven
     Set the oven to bake at 350 degrees for 30 to 35 minutes. Check the bread at 25 minutes to make sure it has not browned too much. Remove from pan and cool on rack.
     I frost it with a light glaze made from 1 cup of powdered sugar, 1 tsp. lemon juice, 2 TBLS milk.

What traditions make Easter meaningful for you?

"The angel said to the women, 'Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified.  He is not here; he has risen, just as he said.'" Matthew 28:5-6a  NIV

Have a Blessed Easter!

From My Heart to Yours,

Linking with Ann Kroeker at Food on Fridays

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