Some of my favorite things about holidays are the customs and traditions that people keep. They may be very new, or they can go back for generations. They can involve any number of different rituals, but, thankfully, many of the traditions center around one of my favorite topics, food! That is certainly the case in my family…it’s all about the food. For Christmas, there is the fish dinner (Feast of the Seven Fishes), for Thanksgiving, there’s holiday soup (Italian Wedding), and for Easter, there is always Easter bread (spianata)!
Sweet breads are very common around the holidays. Many cultures have their own versions, but this one is an Italian Easter bread. Flavored with vanilla and anise seeds, it’s a great breakfast treat. There are many different recipes, some more light and bread like, others more dense and cake like, but they are all delicious. For this one, I used my Mommom Phil’s recipe. As you can imagine, in my Mom’s recipe box, she has a ton of different recipes (Mommom Phil, or Philomena, being my Dad’s Mom), and this one is more cake like and makes about 6 loaves.
To start, mix 1 envelope yeast with 1/2 cup warm water and 1 tablespoon of sugar. Let this proof for a few minutes while you mix everything else. Using a mixer, cream together 1 stick softened butter and 1 1/2 cups sugar. Add 6 eggs and continue to mix. Add 1/4 cup vegetable oil, 3/4 cup warm milk, 1 teaspoon vanilla, 1 teaspoon anise seeds, and the yeast mixture (make sure that the yeast mixture has bubbled up and you no longer see the individual yeast seeds). Mix everything until combined, then add about 2 1/2 lbs flour (about 9 cups). Mix until a dough forms. You may need to add an extra cup or two of flour so that you have a dough that you can knead.
Dump the whole thing on a floured surface and start to knead. You want the dough to be smooth and consistent. This won’t take long. Once it’s ready, pour a little bit of oil in a large bowl and swirl the ball of dough in the oil, then turn it over. This way the dough is covered in oil, including the top. Cover the dough with a piece of plastic and a towel (because that’s how my Mom and Mommom do it), and set the bowl in a warm place to rise. I put mine right next to the radiator.
After a few hours, the dough should have doubled in size. Take it out of the bowl and divide it into 6 equal portions. This is always the tough part for me…equal portions. Shape the pieces into loaves and place in greased loaf pans. You’ll want to again cover these and set them in a warm place to rise. I let them rise another hour or two.
These loaves bake at a very low temperature, 250 degrees. They’ll take about 50 minutes to an hour. You want them to be very light in color, but just cooked through. You can tap on them to see if they sound hallow, or just use a toothpick to make sure they’re cooked all the way through.
This Easter bread, or spianata, is perfect smothered with butter, or you can do it the old school way like my Aunt Elvira and pour a little bit of olive oil on it. Either way, it makes a great breakfast, especially on Easter Sunday!