FOR MANY cultures, festivals featuring the making of different forms of bread are a common way of celebrating the advent of spring and the first winter wheat harvest.
To celebrate the rites of spring, the ancient Greeks made small cakes, often with crosses cut in the top as offerings to their gods. Theonie Mark, the author of "Greek Island Cooking," prepares a sweet Easter egg bread called avghoules, traditionally prepared by parents with the help of children on her native Island of Rhodes. On Holy Saturday a child gives this bread to his godparents who hang the bread on the wall throughout Easter Sunday and then eat it afterward. In return, the godparents buy the child new clothes as a present for Easter.
The bread is decorated elaborately with circles, crosses, peacocks and snakes. Red eggs are cradled in notches of the bread. As many as 100 are sometimes used. The eggs represent the resurrection of Christ and the brightness of the springtime sun. The circle form of the loaf symbolizes eternity, the central cross the crucifixion, the snakes power and the peacocks the resurrection.
Beginning in 14th-century England, monks baked small buns with crosses on top and distributed them to the poor who would come to their abbey on the Friday before Easter. It was believed that bread baked on Good Friday would protect sailors from shipwrecks and houses from burning. Today these hot cross buns are eaten throughout the Lenten season.
Another extraordinary ceremonial bread is the Armenian tahini (tahini-sesame seed paste). This rich, spiral-shaped bread sprinkled with sesame seeds is an ancient Armenian delicacy eaten on the eve of Easter to break the Lenten fast. It combines the Lenten sesame seed paste with the butter and eggs which are avoided during the 40-day period prior to Easter.
During Passover, or "The Feast of the Unleavened Bread," Jews eat matzoh, an unleavened bread, commemorating Israel's exodus from Egypt. In a hurry to leave before God's grace waned, the Israelites hardly had time to prepare bread. Matzoh proved a shortcut which avoided the wait for the bread to rise. Prepared with flour and water and without yeast (a leavening agent), matzoh was an ancient instant food. Today, the eating of matzoh represents the flight of the Israelites to freedom. For eight days in early April, Jews throughout the world will not partake of any leavening agent in their food. Most Jews will buy matzoh at neighborhood stores. It comes in a variety of squares of cracker consistency punctured with holes.However, some groups have yearly homemade matzoh-making events where a special round shmorah matzoh or "watched matzoh" is prepared. Wheat, watched over since planting, is made into flour with pure water. The mixing of the flour and water, the kneading on one side only, lest rising take place, the piercing of holes and the baking, according to Jewish law, must take no more than 18 minutes from start to the emergence of the finished product from the oven. Otherwise, the bread will have risen and is no longer unleavened.
Count your city's ethnic groups -- there are at least that many breads available and probably more. For starters, try the three that follow. AVGHOULES 1 tablespoon dry yeast 1/2 cup warm water 1 cup plus 1/2 teaspoon sugar 1 cup corn oil or 1/2 cup olive and 1/2 cup corn oil 1 cup orange juice 1 tablespoon nutmeg 5 1/2 to 6 cups all-purpose unbleached flour 5 hard-boiled white eggs (see below)
Dissolve yeast in the warm water with 1/2 teaspoon of the sugar and set aside for 10 minutes to proof.
In a deep bowl place the oil, remaining cup of sugar, orange juice and nutmeg and stir gently with a wooden spoon until the sugar dissolves. Do not beat.
Add the dissolved yeast to the mixture and stir in 2 cups of flour.
As soon as the flour is blended, add 2 more cups of flour and continue stirring with the wooden spoon, adding the remaining flour, until the batter becomes too thick to stir. With both hands dipped in flour to prevent them from sticking, knead the dough, which should be pliable but not stiff, until it is smooth.
Take a large piece of the dough and with your hands roll out a rope 40 inches long and 1 1/2 thick on a flat surface. Join both ends of the rope to make a circle and place on a large ungreased cookie sheet.
Roll out two more pieces of dough into the ropes the same thickness as the circle and 11 inches long. Make a cross with the two strands in the center of the circle.
Place a decorated egg at each end of the cross and one in the middle. Press down to secure.
With some of the remaining dough, roll out strands of pencil thickness, and braid them. Place the braids on top of the circle of dough between the eggs and on the legs of the cross.
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.
To secure the eggs, roll out more dough in pencil thin strands and coil around each egg until dough is half way up the egg.
Using your imagination, design little birds and snakes and place them on top of the spokes of the cross.
To add the finishing touch, with scissors, snip the sides of the cross and the bottom outside of the circle at one-inch intervals.
All this time the dough will be rising. Do not despair. The decorating process will take about a half hour.
Bake for 30 minutes until golden. Remove from the oven and let cool before taking from the cookie sheet.
Note: With the same dough you can make little boys and snakes. The boy can hold the egg in his arms, the snake will hold it it his mouth. By snipping the dough with scissors you can create the effect of scales on the snake. HOT CROSS BUNS (Makes 3 dozen) 1 cup milk 2 tablespoons butter or margarine 1 package yeast, dry or compressed 1/4 cup warm water 4 cups sifted unbleached all-purpose flour 1/3 cup sugar 3/4 teaspoon salt 3/4 teaspoon cinnamon 1/4 teaspoon cloves 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg 3/4 cup currants 1/2 cup diced dried apricots 2 eggs well beaten 1 egg yolk diluted with 1 teaspoon water
Scald the milk, stir in the butter or margarine, and cool until lukewarm. Dissolve and proof yeast in the warm water.
Sift the flour again with the sugar, salt, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. Combine the flour mixture with the currants and apricots. Stir in the eggs, cooled milk and the yeast. Blend well. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured board and knead until smooth and elastic. Add more sifted flour if necessary.
Place in a greased bowl, cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, about 1 1/2 hours. Stir down the dough, pinch off pieces and form smooth, rounded balls about 1 1/4 inches in diameter. Place the balls of dough on a lightly greased baking sheet about 2 inches apart, cover and let buns rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, about 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 400. Brush each bun lightly with the egg yolk and water topping. Bake for about 10 minutes or until lightly browned. Cool on racks about 5 minutes. Then, with a spoon or the tip of a knife, drizzle lemon frosting on top of each bun to form a small cross. Serve warm.
Lemon Frosting: Combine 1 cup sifted confectioners' sugar, 2 teaspoons lemon juice and 1 teaspoon water. Beat until smooth.
Note: If you freeze these buns, let them cool thoroughly without frosting, wrap tightly. Heat the frozen buns on a baking sheet in a 400-degree oven for 3 to 5 minutes. Then cool and decorate. TAHINI BREAD (Makes 9 loaves) 1 tablespoon or 1 envelope active dry yeast 1 1/4 cups warm water 4 medium eggs 1 cup lukewarm milk 1/2 cup lightly salted butter, melted 1/3 cup shortening, melted 8 to 10 cups or 2 1/2 pounds unbleached all-purpose flour 3 1/4 cups sugar 1 teaspoon salt 4 cups tahini (sesame seed paste) 1 cup vegetable oil 1/2 cup sesame seeds
Dissolve and proof the yeast in 1/4 cup warm water for 10 minutes. In a large bowl, beat 2 of the eggs, add the yeast mixture, the milk, the remaining cup of water, the butter and shortening. Mix well with an egg beater. In another bowl, add 1/4 cup sugar and the salt to 8 cups of flour. Add the dry flour mixture to the wet ingredients. Knead well until smooth, about 6 minutes, adding more flour if necessary.
Grease a large bowl with a bit of vegetable oil and roll the ball of dough in the oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and then a towel. Put in a warm place and let rise until doubled, about 3 hours. Punch down the dough and divide into 8 or 9 balls, about the size of your hand. Cover and let rise until doubled, about 45 minutes. Place each ball on a floured board. Roll out to a circle with a rolling pin until diameter is larger than the pin. At this point, take a broomstick or long thin rolling pin. Starting with one edge of the dough, roll the entire dough around the rolling pin to form a cylinder. As you do this, your hands should exert a gentle pressure on the dough, rolling gently back and forth with your fingers. Make sure the top surface of the dough is sprinkled lightly with flour as needed to prevent sticking. Unroll and continue to flatten dough until the center is thinned and the overall circumference has doubled in size.
After the dough is very thin, roll out the edges with the regular rolling pin so that they will be as thin as the center. The dough should be 20 inches in diameter at this point.
Mix the tahini and the vegetable oil, adding more vegetable oil if necessary to make it almost the consistency of thick cream.
Dribble about 1/2 cup tahini mixture over the dough and spread evenly with the back of a spoon. Too much tahini will make the dough runny. Then sprinkle with 1/3 cup sugar.
Roll up the dough like a jelly roll, pressing the ends and squeezing to make the roll longer. Twist the dough and lengthen still more while twisting. When the dough is well twisted (don't overtwist or it will rip), roll it up in a spiral and tuck the ends underneath.
Place wax paper on a cookie sheet and leave the bread covered for 1/2 hour. Repeat this process with the remaining dough. Preheat the oven to 350.
Roll out each round bread with a rolling pin until it is slightly flattened.
Beat 2 eggs and brush the bread with it. Sprinkle with sesame seeds. (Some rising will occur as the breads await baking.) Bake 30 minutes or until golden. This bread freezes well.