The Family Table: Memories of Easter Baking, From My Big Italian Family

Readers share their treasured recipes
March 26, 2021 Updated: March 26, 2021

Submitted by Laura Semenza-Marcos, West Hills, California

Memories of my childhood surround the holidays and food. As an Italian Roman Catholic from a family of nine, and many relatives, I have stories to tell.

The family of my youth consisted of two parents and seven kids—one boy and six girls—in a three-bedroom house, with one and 3/4 bathroom, in the suburbs of southern California. My dad was a ninth-grade-educated, smart, logical man who was well-loved and respected by many. My mom was a night-shift registered nurse (to whom I owe my future success in life as an advanced practice registered nurse). We nine lived successfully despite the plethora of hardships we endured.

Mom and Dad wedding 1948
The author’s parents at their wedding in 1948. (Courtesy of Laura Semenza-Marcos)

My memories are often associated with holidays, celebrations, and food: a huge roasted Thanksgiving turkey and many pumpkin pies, homemade ravioli at Christmas, and lasagna at Easter. These were joined by our numerous aunts, uncles, and cousins in our small home, since my dad was such a great cook.

My husband remembers the multitudes of Christmas cookies and fruitcakes that were made, and to the demise of his waistline, we in our family still continue this tradition. Baked goods of all types from my kitchen are handed out to friends and neighbors each Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter—pre-COVID-19 pandemic. My daughter remembers making the trip to Los Angeles Grand Central Market to pick up candied fruits for fruitcake. (Until recently—I stopped making fruitcake. Catholic monks do it better!) My son remembers the biannual trips to the local Italian store to purchase treats such as torrone, antipasti dishes, and pizza dough for zeppole.

Mom and Dad ravioli
The author’s parents making ravioli. (Courtesy of Laura Semenza-Marcos)

One memory that always strikes me is Easter time. Being that springtime is so beautiful, with the flowers blooming and the Christian celebration of Christ’s resurrection, I hearken back to happy times.

As a registered nurse, my mom would occasionally be called off the night shift due to low inpatient hospital census. My mom and dad would go to early Easter mass at 6:30 a.m. and come home with smiles on their faces. They would have a shot of anisette, a licorice-tasting liquor, and we seven kids would look at our Easter baskets loaded with See’s chocolate candies that we had fasted on for 40 days prior. My mom loved chocolate, so seven baskets full of chocolate was good for her, too!

Mom and Dad 1964
The author’s parents in 1964. (Courtesy of Laura Semenza-Marcos)

Easter baking consisted of many recipes—pizza Jane (ham and cheese pie), poppy seed rolls, sesame seed cookies, and Italian knot cookies, to name a few. Two recipes that my family and I look forward to each year are biscotti (pronounced bish-coat-ee) and Easter bread. (As a pronunciation teaching moment, bruschetta is pronounced bru-skett-uh and ricotta is pronounced rig-oath-uh. Just needed to clarify this.) These recipes came from my maternal grandmother Carmella, and were then passed on to my mom Marian.

Easter Bread

We bake Easter bread to commemorate the raising of Jesus on Easter Sunday. I use ground cinnamon sticks because they add a nice texture to the bread. This process was passed down in my family and I continue it to this day. The finished bread has a beautiful balance between anise and cinnamon.

Note: Early start advised due to multiple rising periods.

Makes 5 loaves

  • 5 pounds flour
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
  • Freshly ground cinnamon sticks, about 5 tablespoons or to taste
  • 1/2 cup Crisco
  • 9 eggs
  • 2 teaspoons anise oil
  • 2 packages yeast
  • Warm water (110 degrees F) as needed

Mix all dry ingredients together first. Cut in Crisco, then add well-beaten eggs, anise flavoring, and a little warm water.

Dissolve yeast in 110-degree warm water and let bloom for 5 to 10 minutes. Add yeast mixture to flour mixture and knead. Add 1 cup warm water, then a little more at a time as needed to make a soft, smooth dough that is not sticky.

Grease a large bowl or two large bowls and divide dough into both. Cover and let rise 5 hours in a warm place. Punch risen dough down and knead again. Place back in bowl(s) and let rise another 2 hours.

Punch dough down, knead, and separate into five equal pieces. Form into long logs and slice each log into three to make a braid. Braid each piece and place into a Crisco-greased 8-by-5-inch bread pan. Let rise again until doubled in size, about an hour.

Bake at 375 degrees F for about 35 minutes, or until golden brown. Frost with powdered sugar icing when cooled.

Biscotti

Makes about 3 to 4 dozen

  • 1/3 cup margarine
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground anise seed
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon almond flavoring
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4 teaspoon anise oil or 1 teaspoon anise extract
  • 3 cups sifted flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 cup slivered almonds (optional)

In bowl, cream until light margarine, sugar, eggs, ground anise seed, salt, almond, vanilla, and anise extract. (Yes, this is how the original recipe reads.) Sift flour and baking powder. Stir into creamed mixture along with almonds until well blended.

Turn dough out onto lightly floured surface. Divided into two equal pieces. Shape each piece into a long, narrow loaf about 12 inches long and 1 1/2 inches wide. Place three inches apart on a greased baking sheet and bake at 325 degrees for 20 to 30 minutes.

Remove from oven. Cut each loaf into 24 diagonal slices. Lay slices, cut side up, on baking sheet. Toast slowly under broiler. Turn and toast second side.

Toasted Biscotti
Homemade biscotti. (Courtesy of Laura Semenza-Marcos)

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