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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Grandma's Easter Bread

Pull up a chair, this one is going to take awhile. This was my families first Easter without my Grandma. The reality of it was a lot harder than I thought it would be. I don't know why I didn't think it would be hard. I miss her so much. I can hardly talk about her with anyone without crying, even now. But Christmas came and went and while there was some emotional moments, it didn't compare to how much more emotional I got as Easter approached. Maybe it's because I decided this year I would make the traditional Easter bread that she made every year. I promised her that I would keep her traditions going and I would never break that promise. It was important to her and it's important to me.

After she passed away, there were several things that she wanted me to have, that I retrieved from her house. Her very old Kitchen Aid mixer, the notebooks that Grandma kept her recipes in and a newer item, her kitchen scale. They are just regular notebooks that she either wrote recipes in or if she found a recipe she liked, she would glue it into the notebook. There are four of them.

Somewhere in these notebooks is the recipe for the Easter bread. She called it, in her Sicilian dialect, (and phonetically spelled because I have no idea how it would really be spelled), bahs do dee. I've searched online for any reference to anything close to this term, but came up blank. And while it is technically bread, we always called them cookies because Grandma made each family member their own individual bread and it looked more like a cookie.

Here's a picture of my Grandfather in April of 1960, showing all the bread/cookies that my Grandma had made that year to pass out to friends and family.

And here is a picture of our Easter table, 1971. If you click the picture to enlarge, you can actually see that each place setting has a cookie on it's plate. This is how it was every year that Grandma cooked Easter brunch.

So I began to search for the recipe in her notebooks. I found it, about five or six different times, with different measurements. All of them HUGE!

Then again, she made an enormous amount of these cookies every year so of course the measurements would be huge. When I told my mom about these large recipes she said she had one that was scaled down some and she would just give me her recipe. So I took it, and didn't bother to look at it when she handed it to me. When I got it home and actually did look at it, the recipe still was huge, calling for 2 lbs of sugar and a whopping 15 pounds of flour! Clearly the recipe had to be cut down some more. Nick did that, cutting it in half. That still left me with 7 and a half pounds of flour! But I decided to just go for it.

So you start by dissolving three packages of yeast (I buy yeast in bulk, so I used three Tablespoons, probably should have used teaspoons!) in one half cup of warm water.

While the yeast is proofing, scald one quart of milk. Turn off the heat and add one pound of lard and 1/2 stick of margarine to the milk.

Lard. Not shortening. Not butter. But real old fashioned, it comes from rendered pig fat, lard. This was the first time I ever purchased honest to goodness lard.

Gross isn't it? And let me tell you, the smell is really interesting. Because it smells like pork. So while I'm stirring my pot of milk, margarine and lard, the aroma is all pork roast. Freaky!

Once the lard is all melted add 12 lightly beaten eggs.

Then two pounds of sugar and mix well. Add the yeast mixture and 1/3 cup of anise seed.

Now it's time to add the dry ingredients. Four Tablespoons of baking powder, two Tablespoons of salt and (hold onto your hats) the previously mentioned seven and a half pounds of flour!

Needless to say, this is far too much dough for a Kitchen Aid (even two Kitchen Aids as I have now). A regular old mixing bowl isn't going to cut it either. I had to use my biggest stock pot because it's the biggest thing I own that I could mix this much dough in.

And I couldn't use a wooden spoon because it would have broken from the weight of the dough. So I did it how Grandma always did, and put my hands in there and got busy! And I used another one of her tricks. I put the pot of dough on one of my dining room chairs while I mixed it. She was really short and the big bowl on the counter was too difficult for her to mix. Well I'm not giant either, so I tried it this way and it worked out perfectly! And hand mixing worked great! The dough mixed together beautifully and evenly. Once it's all mixed, let the dough rest for 30 minutes with a damp towel over the top to keep it from drying out.

And now the fun part. Time to shape the bread into the classic twist with the dyed egg in the middle. I had dyed my eggs the day before. I did it the same way Grandma does, raw. Since you put the egg in the bread, if you boiled them first, they get overcooked and not very edible. But putting them in the dough raw lets them bake in the oven along with the bread.

You may recall that I said I probably should have used only two Tablespoons of yeast. This is why....

The bread puffed up so big in the oven on the first batch that they looked more like cloven hooves then bread! And then I was really sad to see that the egg dye had run onto the bread itself.

My mom assured me that this always happened to Grandma too, so I didn't feel so bad after that. If it happened the expert too, then it's OK!

I shaped and shaped, some with eggs, some without. Some small, some big. Some huge! The dough never got smaller. The yeast in it made it keep growing and growing and I felt like I was never going to run out! So I made them bigger and bigger.

And finally, the end was near. My back was aching, my arms were sore and I still had to ice them. At least once an hour I looked up to the heavens and said, "Grandma! How on earth did you do this every year!" And a new surge of energy would go through me. All I wanted to do was make her proud and let her know I was keeping her tradition alive.

I got out my old fashioned juicer (you know, the old Pyrex kind because that's what she used) and a few lemons. With that juice and about two pounds of powdered sugar, the icing is made. It's should be thick, but not overly so. It should still run off the spoon easily.

All you do is drizzle the cookies/bread with the icing and then sprinkle with multi-colored nonpareils. Make sure you sprinkle immediately before the icing dries.

When I was a kid, my mom and I would go to Grandma's and help her make them. Grandma had them on a big table in her basement (like the black and white picture above). You do know that most Italians have two kitchens right? The main one and then the one in the basement. Anyway, they were on a white sheet on a big long table and big blobs of icing and sprinkles would dry on the sheet where the run off was. And my favorite thing to do was pick off those bits of icing and eat them. Some things never change.

And so, here they are. All done and ready to be distributed to any and all family and friends. And might I add that they came out absolutely delicious! I, on the other hand, needed to soak in a tub of Epsom salts, take a bunch of Ibuprofin and have my arms rubbed down with Ben-Gay! Here's looking to next year when I do it all over again!

Ingredient list:

1/2 cup warm water
1 lb. lard
1 quart milk
2 lbs. sugar
1 dozen eggs
4 Tablespoons baking powder
3 pkgs. yeast
2 Tablespoons salt
1/3 cup anise seed
1/2 stick margarine
7.5 lbs. flour


Jackie said...

I loved reading about your Grandma's Easter Bread. I'm sure she was smiling down on you for keeping her traditions alive. Awesome!

Kesseret Steeplechase said...

My God. I love love love reading about your Grandma. It reminds me of mine. <3

Kesseret Steeplechase said...

oh crap, that's me, Christine <3

Kathy said...

Thanks Christine and I knew it was you! LOL