These days we are constantly surrounded by sweet baked goods, but once upon a time they were considered quite special. Daily bread was usually brown and meant for sustenance; only for holidays, Easter in particular, was it rich and extravagant, made with fancy white flour, milk, butter and eggs, and studded with candied fruit.
Every bread-eating culture has its own variation on this celebratory theme. Easter seems to be a holiday that depends upon these sweet indulgences, along with decorative sugar eggs, chocolates, cakes in the shape of lambs and countless other regional delights.
I worked for several years making bread for a French bakery in California. Easter was by far the busiest day of the year.
For my Easter bread recipe, instead of those commercial candied fruits that glow in the dark, I use a colorful combination of currants, golden raisins, dried apricots and dried cranberries. For sweet fragrance, there are anise seeds, cardamom and a good handful of almonds.
After the dough has risen, shape it as you wish, into free-form or braided loaves, or in standard loaf pans.
Bread baking requires patience. Let the yeast do its work, and don't try to rush it. Go for a walk once the dough is mixed, or take a nap. Or you can refrigerate the dough overnight and resume the process the next day with excellent results. That way the wait to bake it won't seem so long.
HOLIDAY BREAD FOR EASTER
Time: 3 1/2 hours, including rising; yield: 2 loaves
For the sponge:
1 cup milk, at room temperature
1 package dry active yeast (2 1/4 teaspoons)
125 grams all-purpose flour (1 cup)
For the dough:
30 grams currants (1/4 cup)
100 grams golden raisins (3/4 cup )
125 grams cup dried cranberries or dried cherries (1 cup)
30 grams diced dried apricots or dried mango (1/4 cup)
1 tablespoon rum
2 eggs plus 3 egg yolks
12 tablespoons unsalted butter
(1 1/2 sticks), melted, at room temperature
1 tablespoon almond extract
500 grams all-purpose flour (4 cups), plus extra for dusting
1 teaspoon fine salt
100 grams sugar (1/2 cup)
2 teaspoons anise seeds
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon grated orange zest
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
70 grams slivered almonds (3/4 cup)
1 tablespoon milk
Sugar or pearl sugar for topping, optional
Make the sponge: Put 1 cup milk in a medium bowl, add yeast and let dissolve. Whisk in 125 grams (1 cup) all-purpose flour. Cover bowl and leave in a warm place until doubled in size and very frothy, about 30 minutes.
Put currants, raisins, cranberries and apricots in a small bowl and cover with hot water. Leave 10 minutes, then drain. Return to bowl and stir in rum.
Beat 2 eggs and 2 yolks. Add beaten eggs, melted butter and almond extract to sponge and stir. Stir in dried fruit.
In a large bowl mix together 500 grams (4 cups) all-purpose flour, salt, sugar, anise seeds, cardamom, orange zest, lemon zest and almonds. Pour sponge mixture over flour mixture and combine, stirring with a spoon or hands until it forms a shaggy, slightly sticky mass. Dust lightly with flour and turn dough out onto a clean work surface. Knead for a few minutes until smooth, dusting with a minimal amount of flour if necessary, to make a soft dough. (If desired, dough may be refrigerated overnight in a large zippered storage bag. Bring to room temperature and proceed with recipe.)
Put dough in a large bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm place until doubled, about 45 minutes. Punch down dough and knead lightly. Divide dough in half with knife and form two loaves; they can be round, braided or free-form. Place side by side on a large parchment-lined baking sheet, leaving a 4-inch space between them (or use two smaller baking sheets). Cover lightly with plastic wrap or a damp tea towel and let rise until doubled, about 30 minutes. Meanwhile, place a rack in the middle of the oven, and heat oven to 350 degrees.
Make the egg wash: With a fork, beat together the remaining egg yolk and the milk. Uncover loaves and brush generously with egg wash. Sprinkle each loaf with 2 tablespoons sugar (or 1 tablespoon pearl sugar), if desired. Bake on middle rack for 45 minutes or until loaves are a dark, glossy brown.
Transfer to a cooling rack and let cool completely.