Traditional Calabrese Cuzzupe: Italian Easter Bread
Growing up every Easter, my mom and Nonna would make cuzzupe (pronounced catsupo in our dialect)—Italian easter bread braided with hard-boiled eggs nested inside. It was sweet and tinged with anise flavour, and the dough would pull apart dreamily. My mom would make individual breads for my sister, cousins and I—braided like a swaddled baby, with icing and sprinkles drizzled on top. Our job as young kids was to add the sprinkles, and dye the eggs.
As we got a little older, my mom would let us braid the dough once it was rolled into long strips (watching closely, of course). In an Italian family, you have your generational roles—and the only time you move on from those roles is, well—when there’s no one else to do the others. When we’re making tomato sauce, Nonna always peels the tomatoes. Nonno always minds the boiling pot. Zio always smashes the tomatoes into the grinder. Mom always oils the lids of the mason jars. When we make apple pie for Thanksgiving (a North American tradition that was adopted into the family), Nonna always peels the apples, Mom makes the dough, and I cut the designs for the top of the pie and place the dried chickpeas on top to prevent bubbling in the oven.
So here we were, in the middle of COVID-19 isolation, and as an adult living on my own, I had never fully made our traditional Easter bread. Since I was old enough to eat solids, I’d been eating cuzzupe at 11:00am on Easter Saturday—and I had enough flour and just enough eggs to try it on my own for the first time.
I hopped on the phone with my Nonna, and then my mom, to learn a little more about the history of the recipe, and to get in on their tricks that wouldn’t have been written on the recipes.
There are 3 recipes here:
- Traditional // handed down through the generations
- Modern // using ingredients that were harder to come by in 1940s Italy
- My own fusion of the two
First, let’s catch you up on some fun Italian back story.
According to my Nonna, in southern Italy for her family that had little money, worked for a baron and lived in a long building with other families and one bathroom, certain ingredients were too expensive to keep often. One of those was oil. So the traditional recipe calls for lard. They would kill a pig once a year, and use it throughout the ongoing months—for prosciutto, mortadella, and its lard. It lasted long and was accessible.
The second difference noted in the recipes is that you won’t be able to add all the flour and mix it in the bowl. Nonna says the flour in North America is “harder” than in Italy, so you’ll have to knead the last cup in by hand on the counter. Not sure what constitutes “harder” flour, but turns out she was right about kneading in the last cup!
The best part about the traditional recipe is that it was written on a memo pad from the Canadian citizenship office, and it specified Robin Hood flour. What a story! Okay. Enough chatting—on to the recipe!
Ricette tradizionali // Traditional recipe
Durata // time
All versions take approximately 3-4h
- 7 cups Robin Hood Flour (6 to start, 1 for kneading)
- 1 cup milk
- 6 eggs
- 1 ¼ to 1 ½ cups of granulated sugar
- 1 ½ tsp butter
- 1 ½ tsp lard
- ½ tsp salt
- 1 ½ anise seeds
- 2 packs of yeast (5 teaspoons)
For the egg wash
- 1 egg yolk
- 2 tsp of water
Ricetta moderna // Modern Recipe
You’ll have to excuse the very Italian measurements on this recipe—it’s straight from Nonna, so some items don’t have a measurement and others aren’t very exact! The secret is kind of feeling it out.
Key example? When Nonna says a half a glass of oil, she means a medium-sized water glass.
- 8 cups of flour (start with 7)
- Anise seeds
- 5 eggs
- 2 packs of yeast
- 1 cup and a bit of milk
- 1 ½ cups of sugar (actually, a little less)
- Grated lemon zest
- ½ tsp salt
- ½ a glass of oil
For the egg wash
- 1 egg yolk
- 2 tsp of water
la mia ricetta // my recipe
In my recipe, I outline the instructions of the traditional version and made slight alterations based on access to certain ingredients, and the fact I am only baking for one person. So below, you’ll find a halved recipe, along with directions that apply to all 3 versions!
Cooking in the middle of a lock-down pandemic made things a little more interesting, notably that without a lot of access to butter or lard, I cracked open my bottle of canola oil and tried Nonna’s newer method.
I also didn’t nest any eggs into the loaf this time around, as being in the middle of a pandemic makes eggs harder to come by, and I couldn’t bear using my last three as decoration!
This recipe comes out more moist than the traditional recipe—it’s so tasty!
Ingredienti // Ingredients
- 4 cups flour (3 cups mixed, 1 cup kneaded)
- 3 eggs (saved a little of the yolk for the egg wash)
- 2 ½ tsp quick rise yeast
- 150 ml oat milk
- ¾ cups granulated sugar
- ¼ glass of canola oil
- ¼ tsp salt
- ¾ tsp anise extract (roughly – I didn’t have seeds on me, kind of winged it!)
For the egg wash
- ½ egg yolk
- 1 tsp of water
Procedimento // Directions
- In a small pot, add milk, sugar, butter, lard, anise seeds and salt.
- There are no instructions beyond that, but I figured having it in a pot meant to heat it up – so, go for melting it a bit (not too hot)
- Add yeast to a small bowl with half a cup of warm water, not above 110f
- In a separate mixing bowl, beat eggs until frothy
- Add milk mixture and yeast
- Beat in all but one cup of flour and mix until blended
- Transfer dough to a flat, floured surface and knead the dough until elastic
- Oil a fresh bowl, place the dough in it with a little oil brushed on the dough ball, and cover with wrap
- Let it rise until it’s doubled in size
- Knead for 5 mins
- Cover again for 10 mins
- Roll into ropes and braid on a cookie sheet and cover for 1h
- Bake at 350f
- When slightly golden, remove and brush with egg wash and sprinkle with sugar
- Return to the oven, bake until golden
- Remove from oven, slide to a cooling rack
Suggerimento e sostituzione // Tips & substitutions
- This recipe makes a LOT of bread. Great if you’d like to make 4 braided kids’ helpings, plus a larger loaf. For a single braided loaf, halve the recipe.
- If halving the recipe, use 3 eggs for the dough but save part of the yolk of the third egg for your egg wash.
- This recipe can be made without milk—oat milk worked wonderfully for me!
- The dough will start climbing up the beaters. If it does that, remove from the bowl and knead in the rest of the flour.
- Slathering some olive oil on your hands before kneading the bread will prevent it from sticking to your fingers too much!
- Don’t be weirded out if kneading the dough takes a while! It takes some work to get there. It’ll feel really sticky and sloppy at first. Keep adding on flour and flouring the surface (but not too much to make it dry).
- Let the dough rise somewhere warm; it’ll go by more quickly. I turn my oven on at 200f and sit the bowl on the stove right by the vents.
- I find it easier to roll the dough strips in the air, between my hands instead of on the counter
- You can skip covering the braided loaf for another hour after braiding it. I put mine right into the oven and it turned out beautifully!
- Dab the ends of the braid with water so the dough sticks together and doesn’t pop unbraided in the oven. I tuck the ends into each other to make a perfect wreath.
- You know it’s baked when the top is nice and golden brown, and the bottom is also slightly browned. Knock and see if it sounds hollow!
- Careful removing it from the cookie sheet—it might be floppy before it cools.
- This bread stores just fine wrapped in a cloth inside a paper bag! Keeps it moist without losing the beautiful firmness of the baked crust. Once you slice it, wrap in beeswax wrap and pop it back into the paper bag.
- Cuzzupe freezes well! Slice and freeze, and bring it out to thaw when you have your cups of coffee.
If you do end up making this Easter bread, I hope you enjoy! From my family to yours, Buona Pasqua!