Monday, March 25, 2024

“Egg Bread for Easter” by Norma Gardner

“No, you have to hide the egg!” my twenty-two-year-old daughter demanded.

I was covered with flour, had been up since dawn and my hands were starting to go numb. I didn’t need my twenty-two-year old acting like a two-year-old unless she was planning to help me with the bread scattered throughout my sticky kitchen.

“But you already know it’s in the bread,” I pleaded. “And Nana didn’t hide the egg when I was a kid.”

“I don’t care. This is the way you did it when we were kids and this is how Nana did it for us. It’s our tradition. You can’t mess with it.”

“Ok, sorry. Next year, I will hide the egg, that you already know is in there.”

“Thank you,” she huffed, as if I should have known better.

Perhaps I should have. When I was a kid through to when my mother passed, I took for granted that bread with a whole egg baked inside would appear at Easter. Unfortunately, I only took an interest in my mother’s old recipes after she passed and there wasn’t much to go on. That the recipes were written in scribbled Italian was the least of my problems. I called on her best friend, who often baked with my mom, to help me out. 

Hoping I didn’t sound like an amateur, I asked, “Why is there no flour listed in the ingredients? I know there’s flour in there – it’s bread! But how much flour?” 

“Oh, you’ll know,” she said.

I told her I would not know, so she sighed and gave me a starting point. “Start with eighteen cups of flour and work your way up. The dough will be sticky but be sure not to add too much flour.” 

This was helpful but terrifying. How sticky? And eighteen cups for starters – I knew my mother made several loaves but how many loaves were we talking about? I had more questions but I was used to tackling ambitious baking projects – I could do this. And perhaps my mother’s friend was right and I’d just know.

The first time I made Easter Bread I planned to keep track of how much flour I used. I vowed not to hand down recipes with “you’ll know” as an ingredient. I started with eighteen cups and stopped counting at thirty-two. I guess there’d be a “you’ll know” in my recipes, too.

Trying to channel my mother’s baking expertise while ignoring her voice in my ear and her hovering over my shoulder, only added to my anxiety. While wishing she was with me, I knew she’d criticize and correct my technique, I’d get defensive and we’d end up in a shouting match. It’s no mystery I never mastered her recipes while she was alive.

She used to start this bread in the late evening while she waited for my father to get home from work at 1:00 a.m. She juiced about a dozen oranges by hand, scalded the milk, added butter and sugar and then let the mixture cool to lukewarm before adding the juice, beaten eggs, softened yeast and pure anise extract.

Only after she mixed all the wet ingredients with care did she start to add flour. But it was about that time of night that I’d go to bed, knowing that I would awaken to the pungent smell of anise mixed with the sweet and yeasty aroma of freshly baked bread.

The next morning, she’d complain that even though she’d gone to bed as soon as my father got home, with the dough kneaded, covered with an old flannel blanket and readied for its five to six hour rise, she hadn’t slept.

She’d gotten up multiple times to check the dough, worried that it would rise so much that it overflowed even her biggest bowl. Sometimes her fears were justified and I’d find her in the kitchen, telling me she’d been up since before sunrise to ready the dough for its next rise.

With a decisive hand, she punched down the massive dough ball and then worked through the dough, slicing one piece off at a time, rolling it into a long thick rope, folding it in half and then braiding the two strands to make a long loaf.

She always placed an uncooked egg, still in its shell, in the small hollow at the top of the braid. This was the step that fuelled the egg controversy.

When my brother and I were growing up, the egg remained in plain sight with the dough rising up a bit to nest it in place. Once grandchildren arrived, my mother thought it would be fun and mysterious to hide the egg by putting a thin layer of dough over it, making it disappear under the pillowy bread.  

Hidden egg or not, there were always twenty or more loaves that rose again for another 90 minutes and occupied space on every available surface. The old oven fit three loaves at a time, so even after the baking began, the finish line was still far off.

Once out of the oven, the crowning glory was a boiled milk and sugar glaze that gave the loaves their trademark shine and sticky exterior. We’d barely wait for the loaves to cool before pulling pieces off with our hands to savor the the unique texture of the bread at the juncture of the twists where the dough was stringy and candy-like.

In the midst of the production, someone was always dispatched to deliver a still warm, wrapped loaf to a relative, friend or neighbour.

My mother passed twenty-six years ago, and I started making this bread shortly after, inviting family over to enjoy it hot out of the oven and sending bread home with them. 

I hid the egg as she had done for my children, until the year I decided to go back to the old tradition of an uncovered egg. After being reprimanded by my daughter, I reverted back to the way my children remembered, asking silent forgiveness for going against tradition.

As much as I felt pulled toward the custom of my childhood, my children only knew the hidden egg version. My mother had intended to create an aura of mystery with that hidden egg. And my kids loved it.

As if she knew I needed validation, my little cousin called me one day and asked how the egg got into the bread, to which I answered, “There’s an egg in there?”

Her mother told me later that her daughter’s eyes grew to twice their size. Yes, the mystery still worked. Who am I to mess with that?


Norma Gardner retired from the corporate world a few years ago and enjoys spending time with family and friends, travelling, and expressing herself through her writing and sourdough recipes. Growing up in Northern Ontario, her family’s antics and her Italian upbringing supply the inspiration for her personal essays. She currently lives in Waterdown, Ontario.

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