Rich in eggs, studded with sweet candied fruits, and drenched in frosting, Easter breads are full of everything once forbidden during the dry days of Lent. Centuries past – when the rules of Lent were stricter and forbade the consumption of fats and eggs for 46 days – buttery, eggy Easter breads provided precisely the foods that were missed during fasting.
Easter breads exceeded and indulged, giving relief after Lenten abstinence. Yet ingredients and shapes also tie Easter breads to pre-Christian history. Eggs are an eternal symbol of the springtime rites of fertility and recreation, as are whole grains and seeds. The ingredients of eggs, seeds, nuts and whole grains represented regeneration, rebirth, and springtime.
Before the rise of Christianity in Europe, Anglo-Saxons celebrated the return of spring with a wild festival commemorating their goddess of spring, Easter. The animal symbol of Eastre was the rabbit, and the festivities featured Eastre’s rabbits along with fresh grains and whole decorated eggs. When Christians encountered Northern Anglo-Saxon tribes in the second century, they incorporated pagan traditions into their spring holiday. Similar processes of assimilation and incorporation occurred among Germanic peoples, as well as in Slavic and Baltic countries.
The physical forms of Easter breads echo both the modern Christian tradition and the pagan antecedents of the holiday. Breads in the shape of rabbits, eggs, and cylinders are remnants of pagan tradition, as is the tradition of decorating loaves with whole eggs. Whole eggs decorate many Easter breads, such as the Bavarian Eier im Nes, a ‘nest’ made from braided bread filled with dyed eggs and the Greek Tsourekia, a braided wreath bread with deep red Easter eggs tucked among the strands. In a mixture of pagan and Christian symbolism, the red eggs favored throughout Orthodox Christendom represent the blood of Christ. Around Sicily, bakers make tiny pupi cu’ l’ova, individual loaflets encircling single red eggs shaped into wings or faces.
Cylindrical breads have a long history in pagan festivities of the Baltic region; one theory about their importance in springtime festivities is that they are derived from ancient Slavic phallic symbols. Another theory is that the sloping cylindrical shape mimics the long skirt of a woman, a symbol of fertility. Whatever the origins may be, this pre-Christian form has been widely incorporated into Easter traditions throughout Europe. One of the most popular cylindrical breads is the Kulich, a Russian and Ukranian Easter bread with a puffed cylindrical shape reminiscent of an overgrown baba. Finland’s most common Easter bread, the Pääsiäisleipä, is a sloped cylinder. Its shape comes from the metal milk pail in which it is baked.
Easter breads in the shape of crosses, fishes, lambs, doves, cloverleafs, and three-part braids reflect more recent Christian traditions. In the German city of Bremen, Osterkarpfen breads are shaped like fishes and decorated with almond scales in dual representation of Christ’s loaves and fishes. The highly decorated Paska bread (common throughout Poland, the Ukraine, and Romania) is typically adorned with a cross made from two braids. The three-part braid and the cloverleaf both represent the Holy Trinity.
British bakers scar hot cross buns – seasoned with raisins and citrus – with Christ’s cross to ‘let the devil fly out’. France’s most popular Easter baked good, the Agneau Pascal, is a cookie in the shape of lamb with meringue topping –similar in appearance to the marzipan lambs found throughout Southern Europe at Eastertime.
Many ingredients of Easter breads are also tied to pagan springtime festivals: whole grains (such as those filling the Easter specialty of Naples, Pastiera), almonds, and eggs. Tansy, a herb important in early Anglo-Saxon food was later used to flavor English Easter puddings. In the Christian tradition, tansy was reinterpreted as the ‘bitter herbs’ eaten by the Jews at Passover– not simply an ancient Anglo-Saxon herb important to the pagan rites of spring.
Cylinders, cones, braids, and birds: Easter breads may have a pagan look or be a physical embodiment of the Holy Trinity. The most important common factors among them are their delicious taste, gratifying richness, and a complexity and beauty that inspire festivity.
2 packages active dry yeast
1/2 c tepid water
1 T sugar
3/4 c butter
3/4 c sugar
4 eggs, at 70°
1 t salt
1/2 t nutmeg
1 t cinnamon
1 t grated lemon zest
1 t grated orange zest
1-3/4 c tepid milk
1 c golden raisins
3/4 c chopped almonds
7-8 c all-purpose flour
Dissolve yeast in warm water with 2 tablespoons sugar until foamy. Cream butter and 3/4 cup sugar until light and fluffy, then beat in the eggs one by one. To this mixture. add salt, spices, and orange and lemon zests. Add lukewarm milk and yeast mixture to egg, sugar, and yeast mixture. When well mixed, add raisins and chopped nuts, followed by enough flour to create a soft dough, mixed in one cup at a time.
Knead the dough for about 5 minutes or until smooth and place in a well-buttered straight-sided, 4 quart metal pail. Cover the rising dough loosely with a towel and place in a warm place and let rise until doubled in size, 1-2 hours.
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Bake 1 to 1-1/2 hours or until golden and sound hallow when tapped.
Test with a long wooden skewer before removing from the oven.
2 packages dry active yeast
1/4 c warm water
2 T sugar
1 c lukewarm milk
2/3 c sugar
1/2 c butter, melted & cooled
1/2 t salt
1 T grated lemon zest
1 T anise seeds, crushed
5-1/2 to 6 c all-purpose flour
5 hard-cooked eggs dyed a deep scarlet red
1 egg white, slightly beaten
Dissolve yeast in warm water with the 2 tablespoons of sugar, let mixture rest until it is foamy. Add milk to yeast mixture and add sugar, melted butter, salt, lemon zest, and anise seeds. Stir until smooth, and add eggs one by one, beating well after each addition. Add flour 1 cup at a time, beat until smooth and satiny, then knead for 3-4 minutes. Place the dough in a buttered bowl, turning the dough completely to oil top of dough. Cover dough, and let rise till double, about 1 hour, then punch down, and turn onto a lightly floured board.
Knead 1-2 minutes. Divide dough into thirds, rolling each portions into a rope about 24’ long. Loosely braid strands and place on a baking sheet, form a wreath shape. Press the ends together.
Tuck egg into the twists. Cover the entire wreath and let rise until almost doubled in size. Preheat oven to 350°F. Brush dough, not the eggs, with the egg white.
Bake 25-30 minutes or until golden brown. Cool on rack.
(Recipe adapted from ‘bonnets and bunnies ‘)
2 1/2 c all-purpose flour
1/4 c sugar
1/2 t. salt
1 1/2 T yeast
1/2 c milk
1/4 c butter
2 egg yolks
1 t grated lemon zest
1/4 c golden raisins
1/4 c currants
scant 1/4 c sweet wine
1/4 c slivered almonds
1/2 c confectioner’s sugar
1 1/2 t milk
Soak currants and raisins in wine for about 1/2 hour before beginning dough.
Combine yeast, 1 cup flour, sugar and salt in a large bowl. Heat milk and butter until butter is melted and mixture is very warm. Pour milk mixture into dry ingredients stirring constantly and beat until smooth. Beat in eggs, egg yolks and lemon zest. Gradually add remaining flour, beating well after each addition. Beat in almonds and sherry soaked raisins and currants. Remove dough from bowl and knead until smooth and satiny. Place in a lightly greased bowl, cover with a clean kitchen towel and let rise in a warm, draft free place until doubled in size (about 1 – 1 1/2 hours). Pre-heat oven to 350° F.
Turn dough onto lightly floured surface and knead a few times. Shape dough into a ball and place in greased 2 pound coffee can. Loosely cover top of can with plastic wrap or foil and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, or until dough almost reaches the top of the can.
Bake for about 50 minutes, until fully cooked.
For Glaze: blend confectioner’s sugar and milk until smooth. Spread glaze over top, letting it drizzle down the sides
Paska (Romania, Ukraine)
1 t sugar
1 c tepid water
1 T dry granular yeast
3 c scalded milk, cooled to room temperature
5 c flour
6 eggs, beaten
1 c sugar
1/2 c melted butter
1 T salt
9 – 10 cups flour
1 c golden raisins
Dissolve the sugar in the lukewarm water and sprinkle the yeast over it. Let it stand for 10 minutes. Combine the softened yeast with the lukewarm milk and 5 cups of flour. Cover and let the batter rise in a warm place until light and bubbly. Add the beaten eggs, sugar, melted butter, and salt; mix thoroughly. Add raisins. Stir in enough flour to make a dough that is neither too soft nor too stiff. Knead until the dough no longer sticks to the hand. Turn the dough on a floured board and knead until smooth and satiny. Place in a bowl, cover, and let it rise in a warm place until double in bulk. Punch down and let it rise again. This amount will give two large loaves of paska.
Divide the dough into 3 parts. Reserve 1 part for ornamenting the loaves. Shape the other 2 parts into 2 round loaves. Place each in greased round pan. (1 Kg coffee cans work well.) Cut the reserved part in half to ornament the 2 loaves. The central ornament on paska is usually the cross. Roll 2 long rolls and trim the ends. Place the rolls over the top of the loaf, crossing one another evenly. Tuck the ends of the rolls under the loaf.
Set the loaves in a warm place until they are almost double in bulk. Take care not to let the loaves rise longer than necessary because the ornaments will lose their shape. Brush very carefully with a beaten egg diluted with 2 tablespoons / 30 ml of water. Bake at 350F /175C for about 40 minutes until done. Avoid browning the top too deeply.
Anya Fernald, winner of a Watson Fellowship for the study of artisan cheese in Europe and Africa in 1998, has worked for the Consorzio Ricerca Filiera Lattiero-Casearia in Sicily. She currently works for Slow Food.
Photo: Romanian Women making Paska bread (by Kathleen Laraia McLaughlin)