My mom doesn't tell many stories about her childhood, which is weird, because all of the things I know about it are awesome: her pets included a snapping turtle (which she fed by spearing raw beef on the end of a pencil), a mouse, and a de-scented skunk, and for awhile her family kept chickens in their suburban Florida backyard (whose eggs my mom refused to eat because, and I'm quoting her here, “they came from a chicken butt”).
Anyway, one of the few stories I know from her childhood is the story of how her pet mouse escaped one Easter morning, and my mom refused to get ready for church until they found it. Irritated, no doubt, by the prospect of being late to Easter services, Eleanor (a devout Catholic) banished my mom to her room and probably threatened her with grievous bodily harm if my mom didn't hurry up and get ready. In tears, my mom threw herself onto the bed, sobbing and probably plotting how she would run away, when her mouse crawled out from under her Easter dress where it had been hiding.
I took this story for granted as a kid: I had always wanted a mouse for a pet and was so jealous that my mom had been allowed to have one. Now that I am (purportedly) a grownup and all three of the apartments Judson and I have lived in since we got married have had unpurchased mouse “pets” living in them upon our arrival, I am mostly just shocked at the idea that anyone would want a pet mouse, particularly my mom, who wasn't even really that fond of dogs until we got one when I was a kid.
I like to imagine that, while my mom was throwing a tantrum and then rejoicing over her lost and found mouse, this Easter bread was rising in the kitchen, ready to be eaten with brunch after church as soon as the Easter egg hunts were finished.
I'm not really sure what makes this “Easter” bread; Judson thinks it's because it contains eggs, while I think it's supposed to be either a Jesus allusion (the bread rose like Christ!) or else a riff on the fact that it's basically just challah, a typical Jewish egg bread. Either way, it's delicious. The recipe, which I thought would be temperamental, is surprisingly forgiving and I've mapped it out below in a much easier to follow manner than how it was bequeathed to me.
It's time consuming-- the bread rises twice, along with a weird hour-or-two long stage where it just sits in a warm place without being mixed, so it's definitely a recipe you want to make the night before you have it for brunch. It's versatile: you could leave out the raisins or swap them for currants or dried cherries, add a dash of cinnamon and cardamom or even an egg wash to shine up the crust right before you pop it in the oven. And the loaf it makes is so large, you'll definitely have enough leftovers to make french toast or bread pudding later in the week-- a prospect I'm already excited about. It's sweet enough you don't need to top it with anything but soft butter, and this morning I sprinkled a little flaky sea salt on top after I toasted a slice with butter and, well, if it's not the best breakfast I've had all week then I don't know. Judson has already mentioned slathering it in clotted cream, which also sounds amazing to me, though it really doesn't need any embellishment to shine.
This recipe is written in a hand I don't recognise, but Eleanor added her own notes all the way through-- along with the stains that cover the recipe card, this is how I know she must have made it a fair few times. My favourite note is at the bottom, where she reminds herself that it was “made in applecake pan (grease it).”
3 spoons out of five. Delicious, but unless you're going to a party, it makes an impractically large loaf. Also, despite the richness of the bread, it's still a bit drier than I would like (hence serving it with butter)-- I wanted this to be a dense, moist bread that bordered on “sweet roll” territory, but instead it's about the same texture as challah: airy and a little bit dry for my taste. Still delicious, and if I get invited to a last minute Easter shindig, this'll be my go-to.
1 c milk
½ c sugar
6 c + 1 tbsp flour, divided
½ tsp salt
4 ½ tsp yeast (2 packets, if you're stateside)
1/3 c water, lukewarm
½ tsp vanilla
4 tbsp butter, melted
1 ¼ c raisins (I used sultanas)
Boil milk and sugar carefully, stirring constantly, for about 3 minutes.
Put 1 tbsp of flour into a large mixing bowl and pour boiled milk mixture over it.
Add salt, mix and smash out all lumps, and allow to cool.
When milk mixture has cooled to lukewarm, dissolve yeast in the warm water, making sure water is not too hot.
Add yeast mixture to lukewarm milk mixture and stir well.
Beat in 1 cup of flour with a whisk.
Sprinkle an additional 1 cup of flour on top of mixture, but don't stir it in. It's helpful at this stage to smooth over your flour gently so it's relatively flat-- you'll notice the cracks better when they finally appear.
Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let stand in a warm place until cracks appear in the flour (see picture). If you're in the UK, this might take up to 2 hours. If you're somewhere warmer, it could be about 30 minutes.
Once cracks have appeared in the flour, mix well with a large spoon.
Add vanilla, melted (but not too hot) butter, eggs, and raisins.
Add 2 cups of flour and mix well.
Continue adding flour gradually, until dough no longer sticks to hand and “is satiny” but not too dry (For me, this meant adding about 2 more cups of flour).
Use spoon to shape dough into a rough ball shape, cover tightly and let rise in a warm place until double, about an hour and a half.
Punch down the dough and knead it well, at least thirty times or so.
Shape according to your pan(s), place dough in pans in a warm place and let rise again, about an hour.*
Preheat oven to 350F/176C and cook for 35 minutes for a single large loaf, or about 25 minutes for two smaller ones.
*I used an ungreased cake pan for this because the dough felt too heavy to go into a loaf pan and I thought it would rise too much. I (and Eleanor, who also made it in a cake pan) definitely recommend this, but if you're intent on making it in loaf pans, make sure you only fill your loaf pans about 2/3 of the way so that the dough has plenty of room to rise. It popped right out of my nonstick cake pan, but if you're worried about sticking or just want an extra brown crust, feel free to grease your pans with a little butter.