Every year, right before easter, my Nonna Jo would come over bearing three little wreaths of easter bread for my sisters and I. The circular braids of bread would be dusted with colorful sprinkles and the egg in the center dyed and speckled with little stickers of crosses, bunnies and chicks. Among all the amazing Easter foods that circulate in Italian-American culture, this was my favorite. Not only did I get my own, but this sweet bread is a kids dream! Lemon, Vanilla and of course sugar lend their lovely flavors to this dense and sweet bread and the egg in the center is not only adorable, but a nice counter balance to the sweet bread.
I never made this with my Grandmother, and after making it with my toddler yesterday, I now know why she chose to do this alone! This dough is STICKY and it can get real messy real fast when working with the under 12 crew. I don't advise it unless major messes don't bother you!!! But, sadly this means I don't have her recipe. Like so many of my grandmothers dishes, she didn't write them down, she just made them. Pretty much everything I have from her cooking arsenal I know from making it with her or from when I would put in the emergency kitchen call for help and scribble her recipes in my cookbook.
Full disclosure, I am much more comfortable cooking then I am baking, and I have been tinkering with this for 5 years trying to get it just right!!!! Yesterday, I feel like I finally struck gold! And while my dough braiding skills still need work, the taste and texture with this mix was right on the money and I am so excited about that that I had to share before Easter hits this weekend!
My advice with this bread is to cook it and EAT IT or gift it right away, it is so EPIC when it's eaten fresh!!
(this makes 8 rounds)
WHAT DO I NEED?
8 Dyed eggs (dye them ahead of time so they dry, or be a naturalist and don't dye them, it still looks pretty DO NOT hard boil your eggs, they cook in the oven)
8 Cups of flour
8 Eggs (for the dough and glaze)
2 tsp Vanilla
1 1/2 Cup Sugar
Zest of 1 Lemon (I've read that some folks prefer orange, but I have yet to try that, and zest HARD, leave no zest behind)
1 Stick of unsalted butter (melted and cooled)
2 cups of milk
2 t of yeast
1 t Salt
First dye your eggs and set them aside to dry! Now, in a small bowl add your two cups of warmed milk and your yeast, set aside to let your yeast start work it's frothy magic.
In a large bowl mix together 3 egg yolks and 3 whole eggs, your vanilla extract, your butter, your salt, your sugar and the zest of one lemon, mix it well. Now check out your yeast, it should be nice and frothy and not clumping. If it is clumping you can break it up with a fork or whisk, but don't handle it too much. Add your yeast and milk to the large mixing bowl and mix. You can now begin adding your 8 cups of flour one by one and mix until all the flour is broken up. It should take about 5 - 7 minutes and the dough is really super sticky, so don't be afraid if your dough is wet and sticky, it should be.
Flour your working station and be sure to keep a nice pile of flour on the side, about 1 cup's worth. Pour ad scrape out your dough on the floured surface and begin to work it, adding flour as you go. The more flour you add, the more dough-like it will become, however it is still going to be really sticky! Once all your flour is in, grease a metal bowl with butter, shortening or cooking oil and put the dough in, cover it with a thin (and clean) cotton dish towel and allow to rise for at least an hour. And remember, it's going to look pretty wet and clumpy and not like a typical bread dough, so don't panic.
Preheat your oven to 375!
OK! So now your dough should have risen! Flour the surface your are going to work on and pull or cut off a softball size piece of dough, split that piece into two and roll them to about cigar sized strips that are about 14" long and equal in length and width! Pinch the ends together and loosely twist them, then form into a circle and pinch the dough together, place on a greased baking sheet or one with aluminum foil. Repeat until you have used all your dough. Your rounds should be about 5" in diameter and you should have 8 mini easter breads! Now, carefully place your raw but dyed egg in the center of each bread. You can push in the dough to cradle the egg. Cover your breads with a light dish towel again and let them rise for 20 minutes. They will only expand slightly!
NOW, the end is near! In a small bowl, whisk one whole egg , one egg white and one t of vanilla and, brush the tops of each loaf with this glaze. Now add your sprinkles, this is probably the only part I will let a child help me with going forward!!!!
OK, let's pop these babies in the over for about 20 - 25 minutes, the tops should get slightly golden, but not too deep!