My grandma can cook. Maybe it’s safe to assume that most people who grew up in Italy are gifted in the kitchen, but, in my unabashedly biased opinion, my grandma takes the Panettone. (Sorry, bad Italian joke.) From pesto to pizza to cookies to Cornish hens, she can do it all. One thing she can’t do: Follow a recipe.
That’s right. Ask her how she made something, and she’ll rattle off a few ingredients and some super vague instructions. Sometimes I think she withholds her real recipes so we keep coming over for dinner. I’d hate to think my grandma could have an ulterior motive like that, but then again…
Anyway, I know my way around the kitchen too—but not without a detailed recipe in hand. When I finally got my hands on my grandma’s “recipe” for Easter bread, a traditional Italian treat this time of year, I was stunned at what she handed over.
A stained piece of paper lists the ingredients and less than 50 words worth of nonsensical instructions, written up on a typewriter. (Yes, that’s how old this recipe is.) I mean, it’s a bread recipe that says nothing about letting the dough rise. And somehow this is supposed to create the pretty braided citrus bread I’ve eaten for years? Umm, I don’t think so. I shudder thinking of what would’ve come out of the oven if I had tried to follow this recipe. Yikes.
I knew the only way I’d be able to make Easter bread would be to watch my grandma in action, and then write up the steps myself.
Thankfully, she was more than happy to have me in the kitchen. And I was more than happy to have a pen and paper in hand.
Here’s the real story behind Grandma’s Italian Easter Bread.
For the bread:
- 2 Tbsp dry active yeast
- 2 sticks of margarine
- 1 1/2 cups of milk
- 6 eggs
- 1 cup of sugar
- 1 Tbsp of salt
- Zest of 2 lemons or oranges (I used 2 large clementines and 1 lemon—any citrus will do!)
- 8 1/2 cups of flour
For the garnish:
- Citrus slices (I used clementines)
- 1 1/2 cups of water
- 1 cup of sugar
- mint leaves
- 1 egg white (beaten until frothy)
- 1/4 cup of granulated sugar
For the glaze:
- 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
- 1/2 tsp. lemon juice
- 3/4 cup confectioner’s sugar (you may use more or less depending on your desired consistency)
- splash of water
(The garnish is my little twist. The classic version of this bread has a colored egg braided into the loaf, but the perfectionist in me can’t stand when the dye from the egg bleeds onto the bread, so I forego eggs for a less messy decoration. Totally normal, right? Right.)
First, mix the yeast with warm water in a small bowl according to the package instructions. While the yeast blooms, melt the margarine and let it cool.
In a mixer fitted with a dough hook, mix the yeast, margarine, sugar, salt, and zest on low speed until combined. With the mixer on low, slowly pour in the milk and beat in the eggs. Then, add the flour in small additions until the dough forms. The dough will be sticky, but not wet.
Grease a large bowl with cooking spray. Place the dough in the bowl, and cover it with a towel to rise overnight. Something I learned from watching my grandma: She makes the imprint of a cross on top of the dough before covering it. I love that little tradition!
The next day (or once the dough has doubled in size), it’s time for my favorite part of Easter bread—the braids. Now, I’m no master at it, but I’ve always loved braiding. And if you’re someone who finds braiding hair weirdly soothing, let me tell you, braiding dough is even better. Bread dough in particular is very elastic and SO fun to play with. It’s like Play-doh for adults, but it’s even better because it’s food.
My grandma always cuts the dough into even pieces and rolls them out into long ropes. Then, she twists two ropes together to form a wreath and places an uncooked, dyed egg within the wreath. But due to my aforementioned aversion to bleeding dye, I decided to try out some different loaf styles. It’s seriously so fun to play with this dough, and if you don’t like the way something turns out, you can roll it into ropes again and start over. This dough is very forgiving, so indulge your creative side! Here’s a link to some great ideas to get you started.
Once the loaves are braided, transfer them to baking sheets lined with parchment paper, and cover them with towels or plastic wrap to rise again. Preheat the oven to 400°F.
When the loaves have doubled in size (about 45 minutes), uncover them and brush on an egg wash (an egg and a splash of water beaten together). Bake them for 10 minutes at 400°F, then knock the heat down to 350°F for another 10-15 minutes. Remove from the oven, and let them cool.
The last step is to add a garnish. I decided to make candied clementines and mint leaves for my loaves. I also whisked together a quick glaze for one of the loaves for a sweetened up version. This bread can definitely be served plain as a savory appetizer or as a slightly sweet breakfast with the added glaze. Pro tip: lightly toast a slice and spread on some butter. It’s SO good.
I hope you’re inspired to bake some bread or at least to write down one of your recipes (so someday your granddaughter doesn’t have to bug you about how you make her favorite dish). Happy baking, and more importantly, happy Easter!
“Why do you look for the living among the dead. He is not here; He has risen!”