I’ve always associated life’s highlights by sound and smell. Earth Wind and Fire’s song “September” (the coincidental current song on my iPhone) blasting out of someone’s dorm room signaled the completion of their last final. Whenever I smell rose water I think of my grandmother’s bathroom. When I smell anise I think of Easter bread.
Every Easter my Gramma Massaro would bake it from a recipe I assume was passed down to her by her own mother.
The recipe was in the recipe box also called her memory. Nothing was written down.
My Gramma Russo would ask her every year for the recipe and all she would say was “you know, Mary, I put in flour, butter and anise oil…some eggs and yeast.” When asked how much of each she would shrug. “A hand full of this…a little of that.”
So one day in our kitchen, two power house Italian grandmothers coexisted in the single mission of preserving a family tradition. While one woman went about making the bread the other used conventional measuring tools and accurately recorded the ingredient list and the directions.
I have been making this bread since I’ve been married the Saturday before Easter. When it is done I pack up baskets and cover them with pretty linen and lug them to church to be blessed.
Back then, I did everything by hand, including working in all the eggs and kneading until the glossy elastic feel a good bread has before its first rising. Since getting my stand mixer (one of my most beloved kitchen appliances) I modified the recipe to allow me to make six small loaves and still have some day left to do other Easter preparations.
Original Easter Bread Recipe (Makes 6 large loaves)
9 Cups Flour
½ Tsp Salt
3 Pkgs Yeast (dissolved in ½ cup warm water)
1.5 Cups Warm Milk
1 ½ Sticks Butter
8 Eggs (keep some for egg wash)
1 Tsp Anise Seeds
1 Tsp Vanilla Extract
1 Tsp Anise Extract (1/2 tsp anise oil)
Make a well in the flour. Combine milk, melted butter (warm, not still hot), beaten eggs, salt, seeds, extracts and beat well. Add to the flour well.
Add yeast and warm water to flour in the well. Mix with hands until smooth. Put a little flour on hands if dough is sticky.
Once everything is mixed into the dough, put a little oil on your hands and knead for 10 minutes until the dough is mushy. Put a little oil in a bowl at least twice the size of the dough and put in warm place for about 1 ½ hours until doubled in bulk. Punch down. Rise again 15 minutes.
Arrange racks in oven so there is room for dough to rise. Insert picture of oven racks and sheet pans. Have one rack on the bottom, skip a slot then set the other. Preheat oven 350 degrees. Lightly grease two metal sheet pans. NOTE: do not have sheet pan touch the oven wall or the other pan. The loaves will burn. Have only one sheet per rack.
Cut dough in half. Cut each half into thirds. Try to make them even so the loaves. You can use a scale to even them out.
Each dough ball becomes one loaf. One at a time, divide dough into three even pieces. Roll them into even length strings and gently pinch the three strings and tuck end under.
Braid each loaf and set on sheet pan. For large recipe, bake no more than two loaves per sheet. You can put three loaves per sheet for the smaller recipe Brush with beaten egg to cover.
Bake large loaves 40 to 50 minutes and small loaves 35 to 45 minutes. They are done when the bottom is a light brown and sound hollow when tapped.
Converted Easter Bread Recipe for Stand Mixer (Makes 6 small loaves)
6 Cups Flour
1/3 Tsp Salt
2 Pkgs Yeast (dissolved in 1/3 cup warm water)
1 Cup Warm Milk
1 Stick Butter
2/3 Tsp Anise Seeds
2/3 Tsp Vanilla Extract
2/3 Tsp Anise Extract (1/3 tsp anise oil)
The original recipe is done by hand and the converted recipe works well with a stand mixer but could be done by hand to be more manageable. Follow your mixer’s method for adding flour. When I make mine I prepare the wet ingredients and work in 4 ½ cups flour then add in ½ cup flour until the dough is silky. I kneaded it another 4 minutes on the “stir” setting.
Rise, prepare loaves and bake according to original directions starting at oven arrangement.
There was much discussion this weekend about Easter bread traditions. My grandmother braided the dough and covered them with an egg wash to make them shiny and crisp. My husband’s grandmother baked hers with a hardboiled egg tucked in. Some make it more like a dessert bread covering them with candies and a sugar glaze. I am not saying they are wrong…just a different tradition than I grew up with. And, that’s OK with me – keeping up the family tradition is the key. And, it’s never too late to start!
May the blessings of Passover and Easter fill you with love and life.
Have a yummy holiday