This traditional Italian Easter Bread is an old family recipe; it’s flavored with orange and anise, brushed with icing and decorated with sprinkles.
I like to think that I am usually pretty “with it” when it comes to Italian food traditions, having come from an Italian family with a grandma who lived to cook and bake. She had so many holiday traditions, but years ago when my father-in-law started talking about his Nana’s Easter bread, with orange and anise, I was befuddled. This traditional Italian bread and I had never crossed paths. It seemed inconceivable that my grandma hadn’t ever made it, but I definitely had never eaten it.
About five years ago was the first time I experienced my father-in-law recreation of his Nana’s Easter bread recipe. I was excited to finally try some of this bread, and learn more about the recipe. It’s a fabulous bread – rich and slightly sweet, but light and fluffy, and is flavored with orange and anise. He was generous enough to share his family’s recipe with me so that I could make it on my own and share it with all of you.
Watch How to Make Italian Easter Bread!
I did some reading up on Italian Easter Bread recipes before tackling this one for the first time, and from what I can tell, most all are flavored in some way with citrus (orange or lemon) and anise oil and/or anise seeds. Usually the loaves are braided and have colored Easter eggs nestled into the braids in various spots. I am not big into coloring Easter eggs, so I skipped that part, but went the traditional route with braided loaves, sweet glaze, and sprinkles (because, of course).
This is a traditional two-rise bread recipe. First the dough is mixed together, and left to rise until doubled…
Then it is braided, shaped, and left to rise again before it is baked…
After hearing about the Italian Easter Bread for the first time, I asked my mom if, in fact, my grandma had ever made anything like it, and she said she couldn’t remember her making something like that during Easter. Fast forward to my mom seeing and tasting the finished bread that I made.
Aha! A light bulb! She said that my grandma did, indeed, make this exact bread, and even remembered that she would set eggs in the dough. However, my grandfather was the only one in the family that really enjoyed the bread, so when he passed away, my grandma stopped making it. I was only 5 years old at the time, so even if I had tried it at some point before then, I likely wouldn’t have remembered. I was bummed that I had never been introduced to it, but thrilled to know that it had been a part of my family’s tradition at some point, and that it was something my grandpap loved.
Below is a snapshot of the original handwritten recipe (half in English, half in Italian, as far as I can tell) from my husband’s great-grandmother. I just love seeing things like that!
Whether or not you’re Italian, if you love Easter traditions (or just really good, festive bread!), add this one to your baking list for next week.
Make the Dough: Place the flour in a large mixing bowl; set aside.
Heat the milk in a small saucepan over low heat, stirring occasionally, until it is warm to the touch, but not hot. If you have an instant-read thermometer, the temperature of the milk should be between 110 and 115 degrees F.
While the milk is warming, place the sugar in a small bowl and add the orange zest. With your fingertips, rub the zest into the sugar until it is completely incorporated and the sugar is moistened.
Once the milk reaches the correct temperature, stir in the sugar and zest mixture, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Add the yeast, stir, and let sit for 10 minutes.
Add the milk and yeast mixture to the flour and begin to mix it into a dough (it will be shaggy at this point).
Next, add the melted margarine and continue to mix. Then, add the orange juice to the dough and mix to combine.
In a small bowl, use a fork to lightly beat together the eggs, salt, and anise oil. Add to the dough and continue mixing.
At this point, you may need to add more flour to the dough, depending on how much juice you get out of your oranges. (I added quite a bit more to get the dough to come together.) Once you have a sticky ball of dough formed, turn it out onto a floured surface and knead for about 5 minutes, adding a small amount of flour at a time as needed, or until the dough is soft and elastic. It will remain slightly tacky.
Place the dough in an oiled bowl, turning to coat, and cover the bowl loosely with plastic wrap. Place in a draft-free area and allow to rise until doubled in volume, about 1 hour. Meanwhile, line two baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.
Shape the Bread: Turn the dough out onto a clean surface and divide in two. Divide each half into two (you will have four pieces of dough). We will work with one pair, and then the other. Roll two pieces of dough into 24-inch long ropes. Loosely twist the ropes together. Transfer the braided rope to one of the prepared baking sheets and bring the ends together to form a ring, twisting and pinching the ends together to seal. Repeat with the remaining two pieces of dough so that you have two circular, braided loaves. Brush the tops of each with the melted butter, loosely cover with plastic wrap, and let rise until nearly doubled in size, about 45 minutes to 1 hour.
While the dough is rising, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Bake one at a time (unless you have the oven capacity to correctly bake both at the same time) until golden brown on top, 30 to 40 minutes. Remove from the oven and transfer to a cooling rack to cool completely.
Glaze the Bread: Once the breads are cooled to room temperature, you can glaze them (if you desire). In a small bowl, whisk together the powdered sugar and the milk until smooth. Use a pastry brush to brush the glaze onto the top and sides of the bread, and decorate with sprinkles. The bread is best served at room temperature. If you have leftovers, wrap well in plastic wrap and store at room temperature for up to 3 days.
While I mix this by hand, you could certainly use a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook instead.
This recipe can easily be scaled up or down as needed.
If you can only find anise extract, substitute 2 teaspoons, as it is not as strong as anise oil.