One year, it wasn’t until July that I found the last Easter egg that should have been part of my Easter hunt. Tucked behind the top of a cushion on my grandmother’s red velvet couch which stood watch over her formal living room, the egg’s colourful foil covering was an immediate reminder in the scorching heat of summer, of the surprises and joys of Easter.
Eggs were hidden two ways at my Nonna’s house: chocolate ones tucked away by my aunts for my sister and I and real ones by my Nonna in her traditional Easter bread. Fresh eggs, woven into handmade bread, coddled to gold-brown perfection was made for just this one event each year. Traditional to Calabria, bread made this way can have many names. In our dialect, it’s called “vavarillu” which refers to something being swaddled.
My Nonno was the primary dinner cook at my grandparent’s house, turning out patate fritte, pasta, soups and slow-cooked chicken and potatoes. But when it came to Easter bread – my Nonna really shined. It was a day-long affair and the eggs and loaves being counted out for which families they had to be taken to. Loaves were packed up for each relative that was to be visited. A family of four or more would get a wreath with four eggs in it, others would get smaller loaves with just one or two eggs. The eggs in the bread did more than represent spring and new beginnings. The shape of the loaf that had one egg twisted into it was said to be made to look like the baby Jesus – the egg being his head, then his body swaddled in cloth and his two feet emerging at the bottom.
To celebrate Easter with all my readers, I’m sharing here my family’s Easter bread recipe. You can find a few variations of this type of woven bread online, though many of them are sweet. In our family, it was made with plain bread to be shared during the Easter meal. My Nonna used chicken eggs originally, but with my husband’s family breeding ducks, we have access to free-range duck eggs that come in off-white, brown and a greenish-blue. The colours are perfect for Easter, without having to dye the eggs.
Happy Easter – I hope you find all the eggs and surprises you are looking for this spring!
1.5kg bread flour (also called hard wheat flour)
1.5 kg all-purpose flour
4 tablespoons salt (Kosher preferred)
5 cups warm water
1/4 cup vegetable oil (optional)
whole washed raw eggs
To start the yeast:
1 teaspoon sugar
2 cups warm water
2 table spoons dry active yeast (or 2 packets)
In a measuring cup or bowl, mix the sugar, 2 cups warm water and the yeast together to let it sit and activate. It’s ready when the surface is covered with bubbles.
Meanwhile, mix together the flour and the salt in your mixer bowl. This is done so that the salt doesn’t come in direct contact with the yeast. Add in the yeast/water mixture and the additional 5 cups of water and mix for 2-3 minutes. Add in the oil, if you desire, to make the dough smoother and allow the dough to release easily from the side of the bowl. Knead the dough until smooth and elastic.
Cover the bowl with a towel or lid and allow the dough to rise until it doubles in size. Be sure to place the bowl in a draft-free area so that it stays at room temperature. If you want to hurry your rising process along ,you can put the bowl in your oven with the door closed (but the heat off) or fill a sink with a few inches of warm water and place the bowl, covered by a towel, in the water. This method provides the dough with the heat needed to make it rise.
When it has risen, punch down the dough and remove it from the bowl onto a lightly floured wood board. To make the basic shape that weaves in one egg, cut off two pieces of dough approximately the same size (we use 150-155 gram pieces). Roll these pieces out into ropes about one inch wide using your fingers and palms. While you are rolling, if you feel any large air bubbles in the dough pierce them with a knife. If you find you have too much flour on your hands and board, which can make the rolling difficult, lightly wet your hands to get a better grip. Be sure your eggs are washed and completely dry before putting together your loaves. While working on each loaf, keep the rest of the dough covered with plastic wrap keep it moist.
To make your loaf, take your first rope and loop the dough in a “U” shape. Nestle the egg standing upright in the centre of the loop, right in the curve. Fold the dough over itself, as if creating a braid, and making sure the egg is tightly wound in the dough. Create one or two more twists depending on the length of your dough ropes. Roll your second rope out slightly thinner, then lay it onto top of your first piece, creating a second “U” around the egg. Again, fold the dough over itself to create a twist and then a second twist. Pinch off the ends and meld into the bottom piece. You can use a dab of water to make the two ropes stick together at the ends or underneath the twists. Place them on a baking sheet, the one you will use to bake them on, to allow them to proof.
A similar shape can be created with two eggs as well. In this case, you will need two slightly larger pieces of dough to roll out into ropes. Make your “U” shape with your first rope and nestle your first egg into the curve. Twist the rope twice, making sure your egg is snug in the dough. Place a second egg against your second loop, and make a third loop around it. Repeat with your upper rope of dough.
You can make a wreath shape as well, using the same method, and even larger pieces of dough. Create a long twisted rope of dough, with four or five eggs. Once your base rope, with the eggs, is complete, move it into a large circle and pinch the ends together to complete that circle. A longer second rope can now be woven around the top of the wreath, twisting it between the eggs.
Allow the loaves to rise, covered by towel until almost doubled in size. Bake at 400 degrees Celsius, turning the baking sheet at the half-way mark, until the bread is lightly golden and sounds hollow inside when tapped on. The eggs will also have baked, creating near-perfect “hard-boiled” eggs.
Eating warm fresh bread with butter is the ultimate way of enjoying these loaves. Shared over Easter dinner comes in a close second! The eggs are cracked open and eaten with the bread. As a child, (ok, and sometimes now) I would only eat the yolk, spreading it with a knife onto my warm bread. However you enjoy them, have them with family and celebrate the season!