Nana’s Traditional Italian Easter Bread
When I was growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, we would always visit my Sicilian grandparents in Sacramento for Easter. My nana didn’t speak or write English very well, but boy that woman could COOK. She made this traditional Italian Easter Bread each year, and I couldn’t wait to dig into it. Whenever I see it now, I remember my sweet little Sicilian nana bringing it to the Easter table.
A Sicilian Easter Tradition
Now as an adult I know the correct name for this simple bread is Pane di Pasqua (literally translated as “Easter Bread”). What always amazed me as a kid was how my nana got those dyed Easter eggs into that bread! Of course, I didn’t realize you color the eggs raw, and then weave them into the Italian Easter Bread before baking. The eggs cook in the oven right along with the bread, and turn out as perfectly hard boiled (baked, actually).
Pulling the Italian Easter Bread apart is the most fun part, especially for kids. Since the dough has been braided and forms an Easter wreath of sorts, the eggs are tucked in about the braids. When you pull the bread apart, the braids unwind and loosen the eggs. All around each egg, the colors of the dyes have usually bled a little into the bread dough. Each piece ends up soft, slightly sweet and multi-colored. So much fun for a kid!
How to Make Italian Easter Bread
My Nana never wrote down recipes, so we had to watch her carefully and then scratch down the proper ingredients and measurements on a nearby pad while she made the dish. Her recipe and directions for making Italian Easter Bread are super easy, but it does take a while to make.
Whenever you make bread from scratch, you have to let the dough rise for a bit. I like to get the recipe started so the bread can rise, and then go on and do something else in the mean time. After all, I end up with an least an hour to kill. Plenty of time to watch an episode of Game of Thrones. Or depending on your sense of humor, Gay of Thrones is a hilarious watch as well.
Here’s the recipe – I had to modernize and improvise a bit for current tastes.
½ cup milk, warmed slightly
¼ cup sugar
1 packet active dry yeast
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp orange zest
½ cup orange juice
2 eggs, lightly beaten
¼ cup unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 tbs anise seeds (optional)
6 raw eggs, dyed various colors
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1/4 tsp almond extract
1 tbs milk
1/4 cup slivered almonds
In a small bowl dissolve the sugar in the warm milk. Add the yeast, mix well and set the mixture aside.
While the yeast is taking action, mix together 3 cups all-purpose flour and salt in a large bowl.
In another bowl, whisk together the orange juice and zest, eggs, melted butter, and anise.
Add the yeast mixture and orange juice mixture to the flour, gently stirring together (do not overstir).
Add the remaining flour to the dough a little at a time, mixing until the dough forms a ball. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead for 5-10 minutes, until soft and smooth. Place the dough in a clean bowl, and cover the with a kitchen towel. Set the bowl in a warm (70-75F), draft-free place to rise for about an hour or more.
Check the dough, and once it has doubled in size turn it out onto a lightly floured surface. Divide the dough into 3 equal pieces and gently roll each into an 24” rope. Pinch one end of all three ropes together and braid the strands loosely. Shape the braid into a ring and place on a baking sheet. Weave the dyed, raw eggs into the braid. Let the ring rise until puffy and nearly doubled, 45 minutes – 1 hour.
Near the end of your rising time, preheat the oven to 350F. Bake the bread for 25-30 minutes until golden brown. Let the bread cool on the baking sheet for at least 10 minutes before transferring to a wire rack.
Optional: When bread is completely cooled, mix together powdered sugar, almond extract and milk in a small bowl. Drizzle mixture over bread, avoiding the eggs. Sprinkle almonds on top of drizzle in order to stick.
Serve by allowing guests to pull apart bread in pieces. Eggs can be peeled and eaten alongside, or saved for later.