There’s a legend in my family that claims my great grandmother liked her toast burnt. Well, after making her Easter bread recipe several times, I’m tempted to think that her "preference" was just the coincidental fact that the edges of this sweet loaf char rather quickly when toasted. (Fair warning: Lower the toaster setting and watch it closely.) Other than that, this bread is simply perfect. Figuring out how to make it, on the other hand, wasn’t simple at all.
A little background
The words "Easter bread" likely conjure images of braided loaves with colored eggs buried in the top. But there are probably more variations on Easter bread than there are cultures that celebrate Easter. At its core, Easter bread is a lot like French brioche or Jewish challah. It’s made with yeast, eggs, and butter, and can take many forms, from individual rolls to elaborate loaves.
This streamlined version is based on the one my mother’s father’s mother made in the early 20th century. Her father was an Italian immigrant with 17 children. Yes, 17! That’s a lot of hungry Italian appetites. So it doesn’t surprise me that the bread my great grandmother’s family made for Easter, when all of her siblings, children, nieces, and nephews gathered for the holiday, is not a fancy braided loaf with colored eggs baked into it. It’s a simple, multi-purpose loaf that’s as good toasted for breakfast as it is stacked with prosciutto and provolone.
Decoding the recipe
Have you ever come across an old family recipe scrawled on an index card or scrap of paper, ink faded and smudged with grease? The notion brings most of us fond memories of special dishes made by loved ones, many of whom now live only in our memories. But the frustrating reality is that trying to recreate these recipes is like trying to put together a faded puzzle with missing pieces. This is the scenario my Aunt found herself in a few years ago, when she pulled out the recipe for Great Grandma’s Easter Bread. It was always a family favorite — light, yet rich and slightly sweet — from what I’d been told. But the cryptic formula on the card didn’t exactly produce the bread my family so fondly remembered. In fact, it wasn’t even close. The dough wouldn’t rise and the loaf came out in a dense, gummy lump. There were definitely a few pieces missing from this puzzle.
The first stumbling block? The ingredients. Aside from the fact that the recipe’s originator is not present, we also don’t have the same ingredients today that our great grandparents, or even our grandparents had when they handed down the recipe a few generations ago. Our cuts of meat, flour, fats, and even our yeasts, are completely different today. Great Grandma’s recipe used fresh yeast, lard along with butter, and 2 tablespoons of vanilla. These were all real, fresh ingredients that were readily accessible to her. Today, it’s easier to find hydrogenated vegetable shortening than lard, but I don’t want anything hydrogenated in my bread. Our store-bought vanilla extract has multiplied in strength, making 2 tablespoons totally overpowering, and fresh yeast has been replaced with the much more convenient instant variety. To translate this into a bread I could easily make, and would want to eat, I switched to all butter, instant yeast, and reduced the amount of vanilla extract. Simple tweaks that made this bread totally grocery store friendly, and still just as delicious.
The second issue? Lack of procedure. The directions were written with the assumption that the baker knew the steps to make yeast bread - things like blooming the yeast, 2 rises before baking, and slicing the dough to control rise were completely left out. If you’ve never baked a loaf of yeasted bread, you’re probably not familiar with these techniques either, but once you’re acquainted with them they’re quite easy to master.
The puzzle, solved
With a light crumb and slightly sweet flavor, this bread was everything my family remembered. Success! Other traditional Italian Easter bread recipes add lemon or anise flavor, plus the fancy eggs on top. The only addition I found worth the effort was a little bit of lemon zest, which brings out the sweetness of the bread and makes it even better for breakfast or snacking. While my great grandma always made this bread at Easter (hence it’s name), it's so simple to whip up that I’d say it’s worth making year-round.
A note about yeast
It may seem like a bit of a mystery, but using yeast is actually quite simple, especially the instant variety. It only requires a few minutes of blooming before it’s ready to go. Instant yeast comes in a large brick or individual packets, and keeps in your pantry for quite some time. With some courage and a little know-how, making yeasted breads is simple and fun.
- 3/4 cup whole milk, heated to 110 degrees
- 1 packet instant yeast (2 1/4 teaspoons)
- 1/4 cup plus 1 teaspoon sugar
- 3 cups all-purpose flour (15 ounces)
- 6 tablespoons butter, softened and cut into large pieces
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 3 large eggs, 1 egg separated
- 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon lemon zest (optional)
Weigh or measure out all ingredients before starting. If your loaf pans aren’t non-stick, grease them with butter or cooking spray. The lemon zest makes this bread more breakfast-leaning, so if you’re thinking sandwiches, you might want to omit it. This recipe can be easily doubled to make 2 loaves. Double all the ingredients. Separate dough into 2 equal portions after first rise, and transfer to 2 loaf pans in step 4. Bake loaves next to each other on oven rack, rotating positions halfway through baking.
- Combine warm milk, yeast, and 1 teaspoon sugar in large measuring cup and let sit until bubbly, about 5 minutes.
- Meanwhile, combine flour, butter, salt, and remaining 1/4 cup sugar in bowl of standing mixer. Using dough hook, mix on low speed until combined, about 1 minute.
- Whisk 2 eggs plus 1 egg yolk, vanilla, and lemon zest (if using) into milk mixture until combined. With mixer running on low speed, slowly add milk mixture and mix, scraping down bowl and redistributing dough as needed until all flour is incorporated. Once all flour is incorporated, continue kneading on low speed until dough is uniformly smooth and comes together in center of bowl, about 5 minutes. Remove bowl from stand, scrape dough off hook, cover bowl with plastic wrap, and transfer to warm spot to let dough rise for 1 hour. (Dough should more than double in size.)
- Punch down dough and remove from bowl (dough will be slightly sticky but should come off of hands easily). Knead the dough on a clean and lightly floured counter for about 1 minute. Shape into a smooth log, about 8 by 4 1/2 inches, and transfer to 9 by 5-inch loaf pan. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and return to warm spot to rise for 1 more hour.
- Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Whisk remaining egg white. After second rise, brush top of loaf with egg white, and using very sharp knife, make a 4-inch long cut, 1/2-inch deep, lengthwise along top of loaf. Bake until top of loaf is golden brown, 40 to 45 minutes, rotating pan halfway though baking.
- Let bread cool in pan for only 5 to 10 minutes (any longer and bottom crust will start to get soggy). Remove bread from pan and let cool for at least 1 hour on cooling rack before slicing.