Whenever I plan to go home for Easter, I ask my mother two things. One is if she believes the Easter Bunny should leave a basket for a 50-year-old woman. The other is if she's going to make Easter bread.
In our home, you see, Easter bread is as synonymous with Easter as chocolate bunnies. We called this German-Russian bread "buska," although it's technically known as baska. It's a wonderfully sweet, tender, light bread, which is slathered in a thick white frosting. It is also so labor-intensive that Mom makes it only for Easter, which makes it all the more special.
As kids, we were sometimes recruited to help her make it. It was quite a process. Potatoes needed to be peeled and boiled. Someone was dispatched to the food pantry to get out the metal Crisco and coffee cans that were used as pans. They had to be washed and dried and slathered generously with thick, white gobs of Crisco.
Mom, meanwhile, mixed and worked the flour, sugar, eggs, yeast, apricot brandy and potato water that formed the backbone of this magical bread. Her recipe also called for saffron to turn the bread a sunny yellow color, but - at $400 an ounce - we were just fine with white bread. Mom's recipe calls for anise. Normally, I don't like licorice, but I'm so used to anise-flavored baska that I couldn't imagine it any other way. It gives the bread a slightly spicy bite - almost like root beer. If you can't lick your licorice-phobia, you can use almond extract or almost any other flavoring.
After an elaborate cycle of letting the dough rise and punching it down again, Mom would make perfectly smooth dough disks and "spank" them to get rid of air bubbles. (We thought this was hilarious.)
The rounds of dough were dropped into coffee cans, then allowed to rise one more time. When done and released from its baking can, the bread looked like a giant, delicious mushroom of carb-y goodness. The crowning touch: a cornstarch-spiked icing that hardened, followed by a garnish of tinted coconut nests and jellybeans. She also sometimes used Peeps (gag!), even after I told her it would be tastier to use Styrofoam packing peanuts.
For the Swift family, Easter without Easter bread is like popcorn without butter. I still remember one Easter in which I wasn't able to come home. My mother kindly mailed me one, which I managed to annihilate by myself. Even when baska gets a little dry, it makes a wonderful toast - soaked in butter just in case you feel a bread made from a pint of sweet cream and 10 eggs isn't quite rich enough.
I've shared the recipe in previous columns, but people have requested it so often that it seems appropriate to share it again. Even if you don't celebrate Easter, you might want to try it. You can simply call it Spring Has Sprung Bread or Happy Earth Day Bread or Bat Appreciation Month Bread.
I will warn you: This recipe is not only labor-intensive, it is massive. It makes 16 loaves. You can always cut down the recipe, freeze the loaves or invite me over. I'll help you eat them.
Mom's Easter/Spring Has Sprung Bread
4 cups sugar
1 cup butter
10 eggs, beaten till foamy
1 teaspoon anise
1 pint sweet cream
2 packages yeast, in 1 cup lukewarm water and 1 teaspoon sugar
8 cups potato water (peel 2 small potatoes and cook in 8 cups water)
1 package saffron (if you are a millionaire)
1 cup apricot brandy
Flour, as needed
2 pounds powdered sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 teaspoon vanilla
8 drops anise oil (or other preferred flavoring)
¾ cup butter, melted
Enough warm water to make a glaze
Cream butter and sugar in large bowl. Add eggs, anise and cream. Mash up cooked potatoes in water and strain potato-water mixture into dough, allowing some of the cooked potato to strain through. Soak saffron in apricot brandy and add to butter mixture.
When yeast starts to rise, add to mixture. Add flour gradually, beating with a large electric mixer, until dough gets too stiff for the mixer. Let it rest 15 minutes, then finish adding flour and kneading it by hand until dough is soft and smooth. Cover dough and put in warm place; let it rise 3 or 4 times, punching it down each time.
Grease 16 (2-pound) coffee cans or loaf pans with shortening. Fill each can ¼ full with dough that has been formed into a ball. Let rise until dough rises to the top of the can. Bake at 350 degrees for 30-35 minutes. (If you wish, you can make a tent out of aluminum foil to cover the top of the can so the baska doesn't get too dark. Just remember to remove in last 5 minutes so bread browns nicely.) Remove from oven and let sit for five minutes.
Loosen sides with butter knife and remove baska when cool. While bread is cooling, make frosting. Frost sides and top. If desired, decorate with tinted coconut, jellybeans and - if you insist on torturing your family - Peeps.
Readers can reach columnist Tammy Swift at firstname.lastname@example.org