Italian Easter Braids
1 C. milk
1 C. sugar
6 T. butter
2 t. active dry yeast
pinch of sugar
1/2 C. warm water
6 to 61/2 C. unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/2 t. salt
2 t. salt
2 t. baking powder
2 T. pure anise extract (if you are not sure you like the flavor of anise, substitute the grated rind of one large lemon or one orange for flavoring)
1 egg, beaten, for glaze
1 T. fennel seeds
In a medium saucepan or microwave-proof bowl, combine the milk, sugar and butter and heat until the butter is melted. Let stand until warm. In a small bowl, sprinkle the yeast and a pinch of sugar over the water and allow to dissolve, 5 or 10 minutes.
Place 3 cups of the flour, the salt and baking powder in a large bowl. Make a well in the center and break in the eggs. Mix them into the flour along with the extract and the yeast and milk mixtures, until a soft, sticky dough is formed.
Mix in the remaining flour, then turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth, 2 or 3 minutes adding as little flour as possible; the dough should remain very soft.
Place in a greased bowl, cover and let rise until doubled in bulk.
Punch the dough down and let rise in a warm place once more, until doubled, 1 to 2 hours. Punch down and divide into 9 equal portions. Roll each portion into a rope 12 inches long. Using 3 ropes for each loaf, braid the ropes, tuck in the ends and place the loaves on a greased baking sheet or in loaf pans. Allow to rise until doubled, 45 minutes to 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Brush the tops of the loaves with the egg glaze, and sprinkle them with fennel seeds. Bake in the center of the oven for 35 to 40 minutes until deep golden brown. Cool on a rack.
Yield: makes 3 loaves.