Buona Pasqua! Or for you non Italians Happy Easter! I’m not Italian, but I was part of an Italian family for a very long time. Italians have deeply embedded heritage traditions and even though I am no longer a part of that family, somehow many of those traditions stuck with me through the years.
The “empty nest” syndrome really hits home around the holidays. With my son and daughter now both grown and living in another state, it seems strange celebrating holidays without them. I could curl up in a fetal position and dwell on it feeling sorry for myself, or I could choose to relive those memories of their childhood by keeping with the traditions that we once carried out when they were young children. I mean, who cares if my boyfriend is forced to color Easter eggs or make bunny napkin ears with me. Family traditions must be kept alive. Right?
Enter the Italian Easter bread, a sweet citrus-y braided bread baked traditionally on Holy Thursday. Italian Easter bead typically is flavored with Anise and a citrus flavor of lemon or orange. My first memory of eating Easter bread was in my early twenties, while celebrating Easter dinner in the basement of my In-Laws. If you are Italian, then you understand the concept of a ginormous family dinner in the basement. In fact, many Italians converted areas of their basements into another kitchen area.
While I have never actually baked an Easter bread, I have eaten many over the years. My Mother-In-Law would usually bake us one, or they were ordered from our Catholic church. This year, I thought I would try my hand at baking an old family tradition, but give it a new spin. I’m not that big on Anise flavor, so instead of Anise I switched it out for Almond flavoring. I thought the orange zest would perfectly complement the almond flavoring as well. I also
fattened sweetened my icing up with a hint of cream cheese.
Many people tuck colored raw eggs into the braids of bread and bake them, but I won’t eat the eggs, so there is no need for waste. They do look rather pretty and festive though. I kept mine on the simple side. So simple that at one point it looked like a huge donut!
On to the recipe. This recipe was shared with me by a friend whom I consider part of the family. I adapted her recipe.
- For the Bread Dough:
- 4 cups all-purpose flour
- ¾ cup 2% milk
- ¼ cup + 2 Tablespoons granulated sugar
- 1 large orange zest (I cut the peel off with a serrated knife and finely chop the peel. Reserve ¼ of zest/peel for icing)
- 2¼ teaspoons active dry yeast
- ½ cup butter, melted
- 4 eggs
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 3 teaspoons almond extract
- 2 teaspoons orange extract
- For the Glaze:
- 1½ cups powdered sugar
- 2 tablespoons soft (light) cream cheese
- 4 tablespoons whipping cream (or milk)
- ¼ orange zest reserved from above
- ½ teaspoon orange extract
- ½ teaspoon almond extract
- Almond slices (I used honey baked almond slices)
- Place the flour in a stand mixer bowl or large mixing bowl; set aside.
- Heat the milk, almond and orange extracts and juice of the orange in the microwave in a glass measuring cup until 110 degrees. (Warm to touch)
- Place all the sugar in a small bowl and add the orange zest. Mix well until completely incorporated and the sugar is moistened.
- Pour the milk mixture into the sugar zest mixture, stir to dissolve the sugar. Add the yeast, stir and let sit for 10 minutes.
- Add the milk mixture to the flour and use the hook attachment or hand mix it into dough, dough will be stiff.
- Add the melted butter and continue to mix.
- In a small bowl beat together the eggs and salt. Add to the dough and continue mixing.
- You may need to add more flour to the dough, depending on how much juice you get out of your orange.
- Mix with hook for 5 minutes or when you have a sticky ball of dough formed, turn it out onto a floured surface and knead for about 5 minutes or until the dough is soft and elastic. It should be slightly tacky.
- Place the dough in a buttered bowl, coat top with melted butter, and cover the bowl loosely with plastic wrap or a towel. Place in a warm draft-free area and let rise until doubled, about 1 hour.
- Turn the dough out onto a clean surface and divide in three sections. Roll each of the six pieces into long ropes the length of the bans. Loosely braid three ropes together.
- Take the braid and gently fold into a circle tucking the loose ends in.
- Carefully place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper
- Brush tops of each with melted butter, loosely cover with plastic wrap or towel, and let rise until doubled in size, about 45 minutes to 1 hour.
- After the bread has risen, preheat the oven 350 degrees. Bake until golden brown on top, 30 to 40 minutes.
- Remove from the oven and transfer to a cooling rack to cool completely.
- Once the bread are cooled to room temperature, glaze them.
- Whisk together with a hand mixer the powdered sugar and the whipping cream, cream cheese, orange zest, and extract. Add more powdered sugar if necessary to reach the desired consistency. Use a pastry brush or spoon the glaze onto the top and sides of the bread, and decorate with sprinkles and almonds.
- Place in plastic wrap and store in fridge.
I didn’t take step by step pictures of me preparing the ingredients. The directions are self explanatory. I began step by step once the dough was risen. Let’s start there.
Your dough should have doubled in size after about an hour.
Punch your dough down. I love this part.
Form into a round shape and cut with a knife into precisely 3 equal pieces
Your surface should be slightly floured so the dough doesn’t stick. Roll out each section into long ropes. Keep them as even as possible.
Next, braid the 3 ropes together. You can find videos on Youtube on how to braid bread.
Once ropes are braided it should look like this.
Take the braid and transfer onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Fold into a wreath and tuck ends underneath as best you can. Don’t worry about it looking perfect. The more rustic the better.
Cover with towel and place back in a warm draft free spot (I usually place on top of my stove while the oven is preheating) to rise again. About 45 minutes.
Brush with melted butter and bake at 350 until it is golden brown on top and when you lightly tap it sounds hollow. Take out of oven and transfer to rack to cool completely. Mix up your icing.
Once bread has completely cooled, spoon over your icing. A tip I do is to initially leave the icing thinner. I glaze the top and sides first as this act as a simple syrup to keep the bread moist.
Once I have done this step, then I add more powdered sugar to thicken up the icing and I drizzle over and add my sprinkles and almonds.
I hope I have begun a new Easter tradition for my family, and my children use this recipe for years to come. The taste is incredibly light, nutty and citrus-y with a hint of sweetness. Perfect for Spring and perfect for Easter morning breakfast. Happy Easter everyone!