Every year, for as long as I can remember, Mom baked Easter bread. The loaves were perfectly braided and shone with a glossy finish. As they baked, the house filled with home sweet home aromas heralding spring.
Mom never cooked or baked small. There were five kids, a husband, and an extended family. She had to make at least a dozen Easter Bread loaves because everyone expected one, including her mother-in-law, who, although was a talented cook (my grandma could make frozen broccoli into a culinary masterpiece) did not excel in baking.
Bread baking was Mom’s specialty before the fad of bread makers and boxed mixes. Mom coaxed yeast, leveled grains, and figured out the perfect amount of raw honey to add. She stirred with the wooden spoon (the same spoon she threatened unruly children with) to create the most heavenly pumpernickel, honey white, whole wheat, and rye breads. Home-baked breads were a staple, like potatoes and pasta. There was nothing better than a slice of toasted honey white bread with jam for an afternoon snack.
A few days a week, Mom kneaded ingredients until they were thoroughly mixed and pulled from her fingers. She slapped the dough into a round mound, squeezed it into her grandmother’s wooden bowl, spread Crisco on the top and sides and covered it with a dish towel. My siblings and I could only watch. The dough rested and rose under a sunny window. By late afternoon, even loaves sat cooling on a cookie rack and the house waft of warmth and goodness. She spanked our hands away while we waited for Dad to come home.
Easter Bread, however, required extra work and patience. Mom had to scheme the bread baking and the egg coloring tradition efficiently. The recipe called for twenty-one eggs. Since egg salad and the smell of hard boiled eggs chased most family members from the house, coloring hard boiled eggs was a sinful waste. Instead, Mom poked a hole on the top and bottom of each egg and blew out the contents. The egg guts rushed into a bowl like an explosion of snot. After blowing five or six eggs, Mom would need a break, which gave my sisters, brother and I the opportunity to blow eggs. Finally, we had a job! A secret ingredient just may have been the spit that dribbled into the slosh.
The same hand that accurately diagnosed fevers on foreheads detected the temperature of the water and melted butter. If the liquids were too hot, it would kill the yeast and cook the eggs—too cold would leave the yeast dormant. She threw in a pinch of salt and a splash of anise. Her eye units were always perfect.
Mom stirred with the wooden spoon, sprinkled flour to make the puddle come together into an elastic bolus. She soon abandoned the spoon, placed her rings on the ledge over the kitchen sink and plunged her hands into the bowl. We took turns showering dry flour into the bowl, onto her hands, as we watched the wetness slowly evolved into this gorgeous yellow glob.
Mom stood on tippy toes against the kitchen table, pressing her full weight into the depths of her grandmother’s wooden bowl. She pushed, commanding the sugar, eggs, anise and yeasty water to blend smooth with flour. Flour and egg drippings layered the kitchen table. The floor was dusted exposing silhouettes of footprints. We all had flour sprinkle on our cheeks and hair. Finally, flushed with exhaustion, Mom lovingly tucked the dough edges into a tremendous bowl, allowed one or two children to spread Crisco on the top and sides, and lay two dish towels over it. It smelled sweet and rich with licorice and egg.
The bowl sat in a sunny window where the dough could rest and grow. Mom put her cups and spoons in the sink while we kids set up the next step—coloring the hollow eggs.
Hours later, after the table was wiped clean of cemented flour and puddles of purple and pink, and the floor swept and mopped, Mom carried the overflowing dough back to the kitchen table for another beating. She kneaded out the air in a yeasty gush and pounded the dough to half the size. Once again, the dough was greased, covered and sent back to the window.
By the time we kids tumbled indoors to forage for snacks, six evenly braided loaves sat on three cookie sheets recovering from their last thrashing. Mom painted her milk and egg mixture on the tops giving them a wet luster. As the breads baked the whole house, even the garage, smelled of home. There was nothing more delicious on a cool spring morning then a toasted slice of Mom’s Easter bread with a smear of butter. Spring had arrived, and it was perfect to be home, sweet home.
My Easter bread paled in color, texture, taste, and presentation. Through the years, I had proven to be a very good cook, but, like my grandmother, a labored baker. My attention often strayed from burning ovens and my math and measuring skills were never accurate. I managed to forget an ingredient, or worse yet, substituted a healthy option which never yielded an edible variation.
When I first baked Easter bread solo, my three little girls peeked under my arms, dipping wet fingers into every step. They managed to “help” beyond the egg blowing and flour showering. Perhaps I should have threatened the wooden spoon. Flour dust hung in the air invoking volleys of sneezes. My bread was never as fluffy or golden, and somehow there were ribbons of red or blue in the dough from a dye spill. Plops of dried flour and splashes of food coloring and egg baptized the walls and floor splashed with food coloring and egg. My girls were elbow deep in colors, kneeling on the kitchen chairs as they dipped the eggs and occasionally crushed them. The dog lapped up green puddles with chips of egg shells.
My dough braids were never even and the loaves baked dense with my signature ring of burned edges. Thankfully, I didn’t need to bake a dozen, since Mom continued her tradition. Even my own mother-in-law happily passed my offerings in wait for my mom’s glorious bread. But, my girls and husband ate up toasted slices of my Easter bread slathered in butter and jam. The surviving pastel eggs decorated the table. Warmth and goodness waft through my house, heralding spring, reminding me that I am home sweet home.