This Italian Easter bread has a strong Sicilian accent and carries the taste of spring all baked into joy-filled, adorable little wreaths. The bread is strongly spiced and rich with anise as a little reminder of winter. Down to the colorful sprinkles, this bread celebrates the breaking of the Lenten fast.
The glaze, poured over after baking, creates a crust of sweetness as it dries and adds delicate crisp to start every bite. The colorful eggs are as cute as can be, all dressed up in pale baby blue. As far as holiday breads go, these wreaths are one of the most inviting, fragrant, and happiest to both bake and share.
During Easter, Italy’s season of rich regional breads and cakes takes charge. From at-home holiday spreads to corner bakeshops, an outpouring of eggy, sweet breads boast the various neighborhoods, communities, towns, cities, and tables.
This recipe for Italian Easter bread takes its cue from the flavors and traditions most often found in Sicily — namely the anise and orange — and delivers a rich and tender texture that might remind you of challah bread. The anise is most pronounced here — if you’re trying to imagine the flavor, just think of it as a bolder, warmer black licorice.
Notes on Baking Eggs
For new bakers, or just bakers new to this bread, baking raw eggs might be the most novel element in this recipe. Traditionally, eggs are included in many Easter bread recipes because they symbolize the Easter story, new beginnings, and the rebirth associated with spring. Once baked, the eggs take on the texture of very hard-boiled eggs.
If you plan to eat them, keep in mind that you should eat them right away on the day of baking or remove them from the bread and store in the fridge. Since the presentation of this bread with the eggs nestled inside is a part of its visual appeal and tradition, often the eggs aren’t consumed.
Personalizing Your Bread
- The sprinkles: Nonpareil, one of the more classic variations of sprinkles, are often used on this bread, but if you can’t get your hands on them, colorful jimmies are a worthwhile substitute.
- Substituting anise for cinnamon: This bread is very anise-y. Even before you put these in the oven the kitchen smells like a licorice factory. If you don’t love anise, don’t skip this recipe! Feel free to sub in mild ground cinnamon or use half cinnamon and half cardamom.
- Fiori di Sicilia: The easiest place to find this extract is King Arthur Flour and they’ve got the only description you need about its flavor: “You know that wonderful marriage of flavors you taste when you combine vanilla ice cream and orange sherbet in the same bowl? That is what Fiori di Sicilia tastes like.” It’s a softer, less cloying orange flavor and will give this bread a scent you will never forget. If you’re in a pinch, orange blossom water will do too.
- Other additions: This bread loves a few extra additions. You can add up to a total of 3/4 cup of small chunks of semi-sweet or dark chocolate, cubes of minced marzipan (this is the way to go if you love almonds!), or any dried fruit you like (dried strawberries are amazing). You’ll want to add these before the dough’s first rise.
Makes : 8 (4-inch) wreath breads Serves : 16
For the bread:
- 1 1/4 cups milk
- 2 (1/4-ounce) packages active dry yeast (4 1/2 teaspoons)
- 1/2 cup lukewarm water
- 1 cup bread flour, divided
- 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
- 1 teaspoon ground anise, or 2 teaspoons anise seeds
- 3 large eggs
- 2 teaspoons anise extract or anise liqueur
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 3 tablespoons finely grated fresh lemon or orange zest (from 3 lemons or 2 oranges)
- Cooking spray
- 8 blue-dyed raw eggs
For the icing:
- 1 3/4 cups powdered sugar
- 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon or orange juice (from 2 lemons or 1 orange)
- 2 teaspoons meringue powder (optional)
- 1 teaspoon Sicilia di fiori extract or orange blossom water (optional)
- 1/4 cup colored sprinkles such as nonpareil or jimmies, or coarse sugar
Make the breads:
- Place the milk in a small saucepan over low heat until warm to the touch but not hot (between 105°F and 115°F on an instant-read thermometer), about 6 minutes; set aside off the heat.
- Place the yeast, water, and 1/2 cup of the bread flour in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Mix on low speed until fully combined, about 2 minutes. Let sit until bubbly and foamy, 10 to 12 minutes.
- Place the sugar, salt anise seeds or ground anise, 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, and remaining 1/2 cup of bread flour in a large bowl and whisk to combine; set aside.
- Add the eggs, anise extract or liqueur, and vanilla extract to the yeast and flour mixture. Mix on low speed until fully combined, 4 to 5 minutes.
- Switch the paddle attachment to the dough hook. Add half the flour and sugar mixture and mix on low speed until just combined into a shaggy dough. Add the milk, olive oil, and zest and mix on low speed until fully combined, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the remaining flour and sugar mixture and mix on low to medium low speed until fully combined, about 5 minutes. Increase the speed to medium high and mix until a very soft, smooth, slightly sticky dough that still sticks to the bottom of the bowl but not the sides forms, 10 to 12 minutes.
- Coat a large bowl with cooking spray. Scrape the dough into the bowl and cover with plastic wrap or a kitchen towel. Let rise in a warm but not hot (between 70°F and 80°F) place until doubled in bulk, 1 1/2 to 2 hours. (The dough can also rise in the refrigerator, where it will develop even stronger flavors, overnight. Let come back to room temperature before proceeding with the recipe.) Meanwhile, line 2 rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper; set aside.
- Dust a work surface with flour, about 2 tablespoons. Place the dough on the work surface and divide into 16 pieces (about 3 ounces each). Roll each piece of dough into a long rope roughly 1 1/2-inches thick and 8 to 9-inches long, making sure that the ropes are of somewhat equal thickness from top to bottom. This is a very sticky dough and adding too much flour will toughen the dough, so use the flour sparingly, and use a very lightly oil-sprayed bench scraper to assist you in picking up and moving the dough when you first start rolling each section of dough. As you roll the dough and work with it in your hands with some vigor, the dough will become tighter, come together, and be soft in your hand and still easy to roll.
- Position 2 of the ropes side-by-side. Twist them together into a tight swirl. Pick up one end and attach it to the other end to form a wreath shape, then firmly squeeze the ends together. Using a flat spatula or bench scraper, transfer the wreath to the baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining pieces, creating 8 wreaths, 4 on each baking sheet.
- Lightly coat 2 pieces of plastic wrap with cooking spray. Place 1 sheet, sprayed-side down, over each baking sheet. Set aside to rise in a warm place until puffy and pillowy, 45 to 55 minutes. 20 minutes before the dough is ready, arrange 2 racks to divide the oven into thirds and heat to 350°F.
- Uncover the baking sheets and nestle an egg in the center of each wreath. Bake for 15 minutes. Rotate the baking sheets between racks and from front to back. Bake until the breads are a pale golden brown, have puffed considerably, and the center registers 190°F on an instant-read thermometer, 15 to 20 minutes more.
- Let cool for 5 minutes. Use a spatula to transfer the wreaths to cooling racks to cool completely before icing.
Make the icing:
- Place the powdered sugar, juice, meringue powder if using, and extract or orange blossom water in a medium bowl and whisk until fully combined and completely smooth. This is a rather thin icing that will firm considerably. Avoiding the dyed eggs, generously spread half the icing over the wreaths. Cover the remaining icing with plastic wrap. Set aside the wreaths to dry completely, about 30 minutes.
- Spread the remaining icing over the wreaths. Top with the sprinkles. Let the second layer of icing dry completely before serving, about 30 minutes more.
Egg safety: The whole eggs baked in the wreaths are edible the day the bread is baked, but do not consume after that.
Storage: The bread is at its best the day it is made, but will keep for 2 days loosely covered at room temperature.