Italian Easter Bread

April 10, 2009

My godmother, Evelina Betterini, used to bake these elaborately decorated basket-shaped breads for each of her godchildren every year for Easter. It was a tradition for her (and my Uncle Larry) to deliver them to the kids the day before Easter.

The breads themselves were works of art: Perfectly golden brown edible Easter baskets cradling delicate cargoes of brightly hued eggs… with graceful basket handles overarching the colorful bounty. All in all, a little piece of heaven, a true treasure for the senses! Beneath that glistening golden crust lay this rich vanilla-scented bread, with its dense texture and slightly sweet taste… It was an Easter treat par excellence.

Twenty-five years ago, Aunt Ev gave me the recipe, which she’d received decades earlier from her mother. Each year, I’d plan to make it and, every year – no matter how certain I was where I had put it – I would invariably misplace my copy of the recipe. But I knew I could always call Aunt Ev and get it from her again.

In March of 1994, two weeks before Easter, I knew exactly where my copy of that recipe was… and I knew that didn’t bode well – because Aunt Evelina lay in a hospital bed ten miles away, battling cancer.

All along, throughout her lengthy stay in that hospital, my beloved 55-year-old godmother had insisted she wanted to go home for Easter. And early in the morning the Wednesday before Easter, Aunt Evelina went Home.

Now my husband and I have carried on Aunt Evelina’s legacy – and her tradition of delivering these delectable Easter breads to our godchildren at Easter. And now I’d like to share that tradition with you.

This is one tradition I’ve managed to hold firm to in the fifteen years since Aunt Evelina passed away. And, although this has been an insanely busy week for me (between almost-nightly choir rehearsals for Holy Week services and my having started a brand-new full-time job [yippie!]), I’m still going to be bustling about the kitchen tomorrow, baking Aunt Evelina’s Italian Easter Bread.

These breads were a glorious part of my childhood at Easter and I hope they’ll become a family favorite for you – and become a part of your Easter traditions, as well. If you attempt this recipe, I’d love it if you’d let me know how the bread turns out for you.

Just two words of caution:

1) This recipe makes a lot of bread! You might want to try a half recipe your first time around.

2) This bread is highly addictive. So maybe you’ll want to make that full batch after all.

I wish you a blessed and happy Easter, or a blessed and happy Passover, as the case may be.

Mangia!

Aunt Evelina’s Italian Easter Bread

12 eggs, room temperature
2 cups sugar
1 cup shortening, melted and cooled
1 cup milk, room temperature
Pinch of salt
4 tablespoons baking powder (if using large eggs. If, however, you are using medium eggs, 3 tablespoons baking powder; for jumbo eggs, use 5 tablespoons baking powder.)
2 tablespoons vanilla extract (more or less, to taste)
10½ to 12 cups flour

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Beat eggs ’til lemony colored. Add sugar a little at a time. Add cooled shortening while beating egg/sugar mixture. Add milk and vanilla. Add pinch of salt. Add baking powder and flour a little at a time. Mix ’til you can’t use a wooden spoon; then mix by hand. Dough should be of a medium-stiff consistency.

Form dough in to desired shapes. Raw eggs may be pressed (gently!) into the dough before baking, then criss-crossed with strips of dough to hold them in place. (You may use hard-cooked eggs, but they tend to get somewhat rubbery during baking.) Bake 25-30 minutes.

Notes: Go easy on the flour – use only enough to achieve the desired consistency. You may want to start with the breads on the bottom rack of your oven for the first 15 minutes, then put them on the top rack during the last 10-15 minutes.

If desired, brush breads with milk before baking, for a shiny, glazed top.