For as long as I can remember, my grandma, my mom’s mom, made Easter bread each Easter. A lemony, almond-swirled sweet loaf: the perfect dessert after a big Easter Sunday meal. It’s a lovely tradition and a happy memory. Towards the end of her life, and after she passed away a few years ago, the responsibility of baking the Easter bread has been handed over to me. And this is where the problems began.
Like so many recipes that get handed down from generation to generation, brought from Europe to America, translated into English, and scaled up or down for growing or shrinking families… something went wrong somewhere. Not only was something off, but I found three different versions of this recipe. One is in my family cookbook, I think a copy of the original from my Oma, my great-grandma. The second is on a recipe card from my grandma, exceedingly vague, probably because she had made it so many times certain instructions didn’t occur to her… she just did it. The third version is in an e-mail from my mom from a few years ago, when I must have asked her to send me the recipe because I couldn’t find one, filled with her own comments about the recipe (as in, “Oh Lord, this seems like I lot of work, this is why I’m not the one making it.”) Now, where she got that recipe is another guess… either her family cookbook, which was handwritten for her by my aunt, or maybe another recipe card from grandma?
Well… anyway, you get the idea. Did I mention that all of the above recipes are different? Not even just a little different… like, a lot different. Oma’s recipe calls for fresh yeast, which is what she would have used in Germany, and a filling made of ground almonds and egg whites. Grandma’s recipe calls for canned almond filling and at one point says you can add more flour, but then you’ll have to add another egg- even though the ingredients list doesn’t contain any eggs in the first place. No wonder that the past few years of me using any of these recipes has yielded questionable results- namely, dense heavy loaves that are two sweet, with sticky filling oozing out and some loaves that just will not cook all the way through, no matter how long they stay in the oven.
I turned to the internet to try to get a better sense of where I was going wrong. That only confused me more, as it turns out that there are as many versions of German Easter bread as there are German grandmothers. Not much help. It confused matters even more when I realized that almost all the recipes I could find called for the loaf to be braided and baked without a loaf pan, which is different than anything I remember my grandma making- she always put it in a loaf pan, at least during my lifetime.
Do you ever have a moment when you just wish so badly that you could go back in time and talk to someone you’ve lost and tell them how much you love them and appreciate them and then ask them all those silly little questions that you’ve only thought about after it’s too late to ask? It seems silly, but I feel this way every Easter as I’m making this bread and thinking about how much I miss my grandma, and wishing I could ask her about where that silly egg is supposed to come in. But this year, as I was on my mission to recreate the perfect Easter bread that I could picture my Oma and grandma making together, I had an epiphany.
Like all the best grandmothers, mine had a blind spot when it came to anything I could possibly do wrong. To the point of ridiculousness. In her mind, I (and of course the rest of her grandchildren) couldn’t disappoint her in any real or meaningful way- I don’t think she even thought of that as a possibility. Every thing I did was a reason for abject granddaughter-worship. As embarrassing and silly as it seemed at the time, I realize now how much I took that for granted. But the point being: she wouldn’t be offended if I tried to improve her Easter bread recipe. She’d be the first person to tell me that I was the best baker she ever knew, that everything I made tasted ten times better than anything she’d ever made, and that this new, improved Easter bread was even better than Oma’s. (Seriously, this is how she reacted to almost everything I did.)
Fortified by this realization and a renewed confidence that can only come from insanely overconfident grandma-love, I pushed on. I decided that I’d stick with a homemade filling from my Oma’s recipe; my grandma most likely had used the almond filling in a can because it was convenient and because she was a busy lady. When I asked my mom and aunt, they both vaguely remember grandma maybe braiding the bread at some point many years ago. So I went with that. I kept the butter that my grandma had in her recipe that was missing from the others… it seemed to make sense to add a bit of richness to the dough. Little by little, I came up with a recipe that was at once the same and different. And the miracle of it is… it worked. Working from my many versions of this recipe, adjusting the measurements (and only one ingredient), I was able to come up with a loaf of Easter bread that was better than I even remembered from my childhood, but with all the flavors and memories and essence of those memories. The bread is tender, When I take a bite, the memories of grandma’s delicious bread come right back… success! I like to think that maybe I just rediscovered the original bread that my Oma made, just fixing up all the little changes that were made to it over the years, all the little shortcuts and translation errors or missing instructions. I think Grandma would be proud (of course), but even more importantly… I think she’d have seconds.