Italian bakeries are always places of great joy, what with the aroma of fresh-baked semolina loaves wafting out the door and a display window filled with cannoli, tiramisu and countless delights that make one’s heart sing.
But on Easter, none of those year-round favorites can compete with Easter bread. Glossy with egg and sparkly with sprinkles, possibly even harboring a few dyed eggs, it says spring is here in no uncertain terms. Also, if one is of a religious persuasion, it says, “He is risen! He is risen, indeed!”
Chocolate eggs are a fairly recent development in Easter treats, having come about in the 19th century. By comparison, Easter breads, dating back to the Middle Ages, are positively ancient.
Back in those days when the Lenten fast was taken seriously, 40 days without animal products would have been endured by the time Easter finally rolled around. And if a strict interpretation of animal products included eggs, and perhaps butter and milk, bread made from a rich, eggy dough would have been very enticing indeed. And made a sight for sore eyes in a bakery window, if there had been bakeries. Centuries later, when Lent is not enforced by law and is not such an ordeal for most folks, it takes more than some eggs and a little butter to get people jazzed about the end of Lent. Sprinkles serve that purpose nowadays. It takes a pretty jaded person not to be enchanted by bread with sprinkles.
The food of Italy varies greatly from one end of the boot to the other, and Easter bread is no exception. It’s a yeast bread, usually lightly sweet, made with a rich, eggy, dough, but the similarities end there.
It’s often, but not always, braided, with the three strands of the braid representing the Holy Trinity. The loaf can be formed into a wreath shape to symbolize the crown of thorns worn by Christ. Or the bread can be in the form of a dove or a cross.
The bread is usually flavored with anise and there might be bits of dried fruit or raisins inside.
There may be dyed eggs nestled in the bread, sometimes dyed before baking and sometimes dyed after. The eggs seem to be the great divider. For some folks, it’s just not Easter bread unless it’s a braided crown of bread, chock full of multi-colored eggs that more closely resembles a bird’s nest filled to capacity than a crucifixion accessory. And then other’s think the eggs are just plain weird. Weird or not, they do make for a more complete breakfast.
But one aspect of Easter bread that most everyone agrees on is sprinkles. For some inexplicable reason that defies Biblical explanation, Easter bread must be adorned with multi-colored pastel sprinkles. And it does make for a festive bakery window or brunch table.
In a place like Mount Airy where Italian bakeries are scarce as hen’s teeth, if you want Easter bread, you’re going to have to bake it yourself. Thankfully, it’s not very difficult. It takes a little while but that’s because the yeast needs time to work its magic. But braiding ropes of dough and shaping into a crown is a lot easier than one would think.
Almost all of the recipes are slightly sweet and yield a bread more suited to breakfast or a snack. In fact, some of the recipes could be adapted for cinnamon rolls or other sweet rolls throughout the year. The addition of sprinkles, generally held in place by an icing glaze, ups the sweetness factor to the point that Easter bread is probably too sweet to accompany a meal.
But then again, in a place where the beverage of choice is tea so sweet it hurts your teeth, who’s to say room can’t be made at the dinner table for a loaf of bread that boasts sprinkles and icing.
Italian Easter Bread (Anise Flavored)
Easter bread is typically flavored with anise. If anise is not your thing and you’re not overly concerned with tradition, use lemon extract instead. You can make a nod toward tradition by throwing a few anise seeds into the hot milk.
3 cups all-purpose flour, divided
1/4 cup white sugar
1 tsp. salt
1 (.25 ounce) package rapid rise yeast (or 2 1/4 tsp.)
2/3 cup milk
1 tsp. anise extract
2 tbsp. butter, at room temperature
1 egg, beaten
Mix 1 cup of flour with sugar, salt, and yeast in a bowl, stir well. Place milk and anise extract into a small saucepan over low heat, and warm to about 110° F. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture with your hand, and pour in the milk mixture; swirl with your hand in a circular motion to combine the flour mixture with the milk mixture. Mix in butter and eggs, one at a time, then mix in remaining flour until dough begins to pull together.
Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface, and knead until soft but elastic, about 8 minutes. Cover with a damp cloth, and let dough rest for 10 minutes; cut dough into halves. (If you want to make a braid, cut into three equal pieces.)
On floured work surface, roll each piece into a ball, then shape the balls into long pieces, about 1 1/2 inches thick and 18 to 20 inches long. Coil or braid the pieces. if making a loaf, pinch the top and bottom ends together and tuck underneath. To form a ring or crown, bring the ends together and join the pieces of one end to the other.
Grease a baking sheet, lay the loaf onto the prepared sheet, and cover with a damp towel; let rise until doubled, about 1 hour. Brush loaf with beaten egg.
Preheat oven to 350°F. Bake the decorated loaf in the preheated oven until golden, 20 to 25 minutes. Watch closely towards the end of the baking time that the bread does not begin to burn. Transfer to wire rack immediately after baking to cool. Drizzle icing over bread and shake sprinkles on top before icing sets.
Basic Lemon Icing
For some folks, pink is the traditional color for Easter bread icing. If that sounds good to you, add a drop of food coloring.
1 cup sifted powdered sugar
1 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
2 tsp. grated lemon zest
1 tbsp. milk (if needed)
1 small drop food coloring (optional)
Combine all ingredients. Stir until smooth. Glaze loaves on a cooling rack with a sheet pan or foil underneath to catch the drips.
Braided Easter Bread
1 (.25 ounce) package active dry yeast
1/2 tsp. white sugar
1/4 cup warm water (100°F.)
3/4 cup white sugar
2 tbsp. vegetable oil
1 1/2 tbsp. anise extract
1 tbsp. lemon zest
1 1/2 tsp. lemon extract
1 1/4 tsp. salt
1 tsp. anise seed
6 tbsp. melted butter
1/4 cup milk
4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, divided
Dissolve yeast and 1/2 teaspoon sugar in warm water in a large bowl. Let stand until the yeast softens and begins to form a creamy foam, about 10 minutes. Whisk 3/4 cup sugar, eggs, oil, anise extract, lemon zest, lemon extract, salt, and anise seed together in a bowl. Pour egg mixture, melted butter, and milk into yeast mixture and stir to combine. Add 4 cups flour, 1 cup at time, stirring after each addition. Turn dough out onto a floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, adding remaining 1/2 cup flour as necessary, 5 to 6 minutes. Coat a large bowl with oil. Place dough in bowl and turn to coat. Place a damp cloth over the bowl, place bowl in the oven with the oven light on, and let rise until doubled in size, 12 hours or overnight. Line 2 baking sheets with silicone baking mats or parchment paper. Punch dough down and divide into four equal portions. Divide each portion into three ropes. Braid each set of three dough ropes to form four small braided loaves. Transfer loaves to prepared baking sheets, 2 per sheet, and let rise until doubled in size, about 2 hours. Preheat oven to 350°F. Bake bread in the preheated oven until the tops are golden and the bottom of the loaves sound hollow when tapped, 20 to 25 minutes.
Easy Roman Cheese Bread
This Easter bread recipe hails from Rome and is a bit different. It contains cheese instead of sugar and is usually eaten with ham and salami. It’s a very easy recipe.
1 cup lukewarm milk
2 (.25 ounce) packages active dry yeast
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups grated Romano cheese
1/4 cup butter, melted
In a small bowl, stir together milk and yeast; set aside. In a separate bowl, combine flour, eggs, yeast mixture, cheese and butter; mix well. Spoon batter into two lightly greased 9×5 inch loaf pans. Let rise until doubled, about 60 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350°F. Bake in preheated oven for 35 to 45 minutes, until golden brown and bottom of loaf sounds hollow when tapped.
Easter Bread Ring (with colored eggs)
1/4 cup white sugar
1 tsp. salt
1 (.25 ounce) package active dry yeast (or 2 1/4 tsp.)
3 cups all-purpose flour
2/3 cup milk
2 tbsp. butter
2 eggs, room temperature
1/2 cup mixed candied fruit
1/3 cup chopped blanched almonds
1/2 teaspoon anise seed
2 tbsp. melted shortening
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
1 tbsp. whole milk
1/8 tsp. vanilla extract
3 tbsp. multicolored sprinkles
Color the 5 eggs with egg dye. In a large mixing bowl, blend the white sugar, salt, and yeast well with 1 cup of the flour. In a saucepan, combine 2/3 cup milk and butter, heating slowly until liquid is warm and butter is melted. Pour the milk into the dry ingredients and beat 125 strokes with a wooden spoon. Add eggs and 1/2 cup flour or enough to make a thick batter. Beat vigorously for 2 minutes. Stir in enough flour to make a ball of dough that draws away from the sides of the bowl. Turn out onto a floured board and knead for about 10 minutes, working in additional flour to overcome stickiness. Place the dough in a greased bowl, turning to grease the top. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and put in a warm, draft-free place until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour. Meanwhile, combine the fruit, nuts, and anise seed. Punch down the dough and return it to a lightly floured board. Knead in the fruit mixture, keeping the syrupy pieces dusted with flour until they are worked into the dough. Divide the dough in half. Carefully roll each piece into a 24-inch rope—the fruit and nuts will make this slightly difficult. Loosely twist the two ropes together and form a ring on a greased baking sheet. Pinch the ends together well. Brush the dough with melted shortening. Push aside the twist to make a place for each egg. Push eggs down carefully as far as possible. Cover the bread with wax paper and let rise in a warm, draft-free place until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour. Bake the bread in a preheated 350 degree°F. oven for about 35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in a twist comes out clean. Place on a wire rack to cool. Once the bread is cool, drizzle the icing on top between the eggs, and decorate with colored sprinkles. To make icing: mix together confectioners’ sugar, 1 tablespoon whole milk, and vanilla.
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Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.