Friday, April 6, 2012

Nana's Easter Bread

There are a few traditions in my family that I would never mess with.  This bread is one of them.  My Nana makes this bread every Easter with the recipe that she brought with her from her little hilltop home in Southern Italy.  I've seen Easter Bread in many places over the years, even this month's Bon Apetit featured it in one of it's articles.  But I could never make the bread with any recipe other than Nana's.  It would just feel wrong.
I can remember making dozens of loaves at a time with Nana when I was a girl.  It's just not Easter without a loaf of the sweet and slightly licorice-flavored bread.  So when I grew up and got married I asked her for the recipe.  What I got was a small slip of paper with a recipe written in my grandmother's personal blend of English and Italian.  My mom jotted a few notes of instruction and the bottom, but other than that I was on my own.  What a recipe!  Every year I struggle to reduce the recipe down to an amount that seems reasonable for my family and a few gifts.  And even though I know exactly what's in the bread, I always spend a few moments puzzling over what "anici siggi" are.  Oh yeah, anise seeds.  I love my grandmother's recipe, but this year I finally actually wrote down the recipe in my own words so I don't have to spend time translating her "Ital-ish".
What I wish I had done, and what my mom still promises to do one day, was to take pictures of all the different shapes Nana used to make with the dough.  Every little town in Italy has their own special version of the bread and it seemed like Nana made not only what she grew up with, but a few special shapes of her own creation.  There were the traditional twisted rings, usually with a hard boiled egg nestled in the space where the two ends of the twist met.  But there were also doves, baskets, and a little doll with an egg for her face.  I loved those little doll-babies. 
Nana's Easter Bread
Makes 4 8-inch diameter ring loaves

There are no colored sprinkles on these loaves which I've seen on many other versions.  Nana's bread is plain and simple and that's the way I like it.  You can decorate them with an egg tucked into the meeting place of the twisted ends.  Twist a couple of small pieces of dough around the egg for a more finished look.

2 envelopes (4 1/2 tsp) yeast
1/2 cup warm water
2 tsp sugar
5 eggs
1 tbs vanilla
1/2 cup milk (warmed a bit, but not hot)
8 to 8 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 tbs anise seeds
8 tbs (1 stick) butter, very soft but not melted

In the bowl of a stand mixer, add the yeast, water and 2 tsp sugar.  Stir to dissolve the yeast.  Let the mixture sit for 5 minutes, or until it looks foamy and smells of yeast.

Add the eggs, milk and vanilla to the bowl and stir with a whisk or fork to break up the eggs.  Attach your bowl to your mixer and add in the cup of sugar.  Mix briefly using the dough hook.  With the mixer on low speed, slowly add 7 cups of the flour and the anise seeds.  Let the mixer knead the dough for a minute.  With the mixer still on low, add the butter by the tablespoon mixing in between each addition.  Your dough will probably still be very sticky, so add more flour to it by the 1/4 cup until it forms a soft and still slightly sticky dough that pulls away from the sides of the bowl.  You should have added a total of about 8 cups flour.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead the dough, adding flour as necessary, until you have a dough that is soft and no longer sticking to your fingers or the counter.  This should take about 5 minutes and maybe another 1/4 to 1/2 cup flour.  Set the dough into a large buttered bowl and cover with plastic wrap or a clean kitchen towel.  Let the dough rise in a warm spot in the kitchen until it is doubled in size, about 2 hours.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

Turn the dough out onto a clean work surface and cut it into 4 equal parts.  Cut each quarter into two pieces and roll each piece into a log about 14 inches long.  Pinch one end of the two pieces together, then working from that end, twist one over the other until you have a tight twist.  Pinch the bottom end together.  Bring the two ends together to form a ring and place the loaf onto the parchment-lined baking sheet.  Repeat with the other quarters of the dough.  Cover the loaves lightly with a clean kitchen towel and let them rise for a half hour.

Brush the loaves with an egg wash made of 1 beaten egg and a tbs water.  Place into the hot oven and bake for 30-35 minutes, rotating the pans back to front and top to bottom about halfway through the baking time.  The loaves will be nicely golden on top when they are finished.  Let them cool on a baking rack.  You can store them wrapped tightly in aluminum foil for a few days or for longer storage, put them in the refrigerator. 

Slice off a good sized piece and dunk into your morning coffee or enjoy for a great afternoon snack.


  1. I Love this! I'd pay you to make me one!!! We used to always have Easter bread, mozzarella and prosciutto, and cantaloupe on Easter morning. This recipe reminds me of being a kid! My dad just send me his aunt (My grandmother's sister)'s recipe. I'll pass it along to you!

    1. I so hope my extra loaf satisfies your Easter Bread needs Arlene! Let me know if it's close to what you remember.

  2. Just so you know, I have a photo of every 1 of those shapes....including your special "doll babies". .They're in my camera...I may have to try to figure out how to get to them though...LOL!