Not a King Cake! Jennifer Perillo’s Easter Bread. (Jennifer Perillo/injennieskitchen.com)
A lot has changed in Carroll Gardens, my Brooklyn neighborhood since I was kid. Many of the mom-and-pop shops are gone, and a Dunkin Donuts stands where one of the best brick-oven pizzas was produced — long before Lucali’s opened a few blocks away.
One constant, though, is the rich, sweet bread found in the Italian pastry shops at the start of Lent. I always thought it odd that Easter Bread’s short window (between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday) comes exactly when so many people abstain from eating bread as a sign of sacrifice for the Lenten period.
I decided to take matters into my own hands last year, so I could enjoy it year-round.
Most pastry shops add brightly colored eggs to the shaped dough before baking, but if you don’t like hard-cooked eggs, feel free to leave them out. Instead of using food dye for the eggs, I decided to buy some lovely pale blue and brown eggs from the farmers market. It updates the look of this classic.
Italian Easter Bread
Makes one 12-inch ring (10 to 12 servings)
MAKE AHEAD: The dough needs to rise first for about 1 1/2 hours, and a second time for about 35 minutes. Wrapped in parchment paper, the bread will stay soft for 2 to 3 days. (If you added whole eggs for decoration, remove them and refrigerate; re-seat them before serving). Stale leftovers make a nice base for bread pudding; just scrape off any remaining nonpareils.
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at a cool room temperature, plus more for greasing the bowl
4 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 cup scalded regular or low-fat milk, cooled to 110 degrees
1/2 cup sugar
4 large egg yolks, plus 1 large egg white beaten with a splash of cold water
1 teaspoon lemon extract
6 cups flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
4 to 6 large colorful eggs, for decoration (optional, see headnote)
1/4 cup simple syrup, for glazing (see NOTE)
Multi-colored nonpareils, for garnish
Use a little butter to grease a deep glass mixing bowl.Combine the yeast and milk in a medium bowl. Let the mixture sit for a few minutes until it has dissolved.
Combine the 16 tablespoons of butter, the sugar, egg yolks and lemon extract in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment; beat on medium speed for 1 to 2 minutes, until creamy. Stop and scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add 5 cups (750 grams) of the flour, the salt and the milk-yeast mixture. Starting on the lowest speed, beat just long enough to form a soft dough that pulls away from the sides of the bowl.
Switch to the dough hook; beat on medium speed for 3 minutes. The dough will be soft. Sprinkle a clean work surface with a 1/2 cup (75 grams) of the remaining flour. Transfer the dough to the surface; knead the dough to form a smooth, elastic ball. Place in the buttered bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm, draft-free area for about 1 1/2 hours, or until it has doubled in volume. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.
Turn the dough out onto a clean surface. Sprinkle with the remaining 1/2 cup (75 grams) of flour, and knead for 1 to 2 minutes so that flour is absorbed. Divide the dough into 3 equal balls; form each piece into a 20-inch long rope. Braid the ropes and shape into a circle. Tuck in the uncooked whole eggs into the braids now, if using (as many as will fit, to your taste). Transfer the ring of dough to the prepared baking sheet; cover loosely with a barely damp towel or plastic wrap. Let rise for about 35 minutes or until the ring has doubled in size.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Uncover the ring of dough. Brush the top of bread with the egg wash (being careful to avoid the eggs if you’ve added them to the braid), and bake for 33 to 37 minutes, until the bread is a deep golden brown. The internal temperature should read 185 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. Transfer the bread to wire rack to cool completely.
If desired, liberally brush the top of the bread with simple syrup, then immediately sprinkle with the nonpareils. The top will be sticky at first, but will set after a few hours.
NOTE: To make simple syrup, combine 1/2 cup of sugar and 1/2 cup of water in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Bring to a slow rolling boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for 5 minutes. Transfer to a heatproof container and let cool to room temperature.
Perillo blogs at InJenniesKitchen.com.