THE BREAKING of bread has been an essential part of the Easter celebration since that first Good Friday nearly 2,000 years ago. That shared bread was, undoubtedly, the unleavened matzoh of the Passover celebration. Bread had always been symbolic of God's love in the Old Testament, and through early Christian ritual that symbolism was passed on. And so it is not surprising that many people include a special bread in their celebration of Easter.
If you are Greek, Russian or Polish the special bread baked for Easter is probably more important than the dyed eggs and chocolate rabbits. Sharing that bread with family and friends becomes part of the ritual.
The bread itself has changed since the matzoh of that first Good Friday. Each country and cuisine has embellished that plain bread until it is uniquely theirs. Yeast and eggs, herbs and spices, fruits and nuts are added to make a bread distinctive and delicious. There is both variety and similarity.
Russian kulich, Polish babka and Italian panettone are all similar. The texture of these breads is like French brioche; light, buttery and full of eggs. But the flavors are something else. bThey are sweet and filled with almonds, lemon, candied fruits, raisins, vanilla and spices. The panettone and kulich are baked in cylindrical molds and crowned with thick frosting and colorful decorations. The babka, on the other hand, is baked in a fluted ring mold that resembles grandmother's skirt.It's no wonder that the name babka means little grandmother.
In Greece, the scarlet eggs which represent the blood of Christ are used to decorate the braided wreath of anise bread. Because the dough is not very sweet, it is a good bread to serve with dinner. And, of course, that dinner is traditionally lamb.
In Mexico the Easter bread, called pan dolce, is eaten year-round. A sweet, soft egg bread, at Easter it bears the greeting "Felice Pascuas" written in a roux made of flour and shortening that bakes right on top of the shining golden bread.
It seems appropriate that the crocuses that announce spring donate their yellow color to the traditional saffron bread of Portugal. This bread is golden and sweet, and, like the Greek bread, is decorated with eggs. This is no breakfast pastry; its rich sweetness is more appealing with a dessert wine after dinner.
Whichever bread you decide to bake for Easter, you can be sure that you are one of a long line of people who have celebrated this holiday by breaking bread with family and friends. RUSSIAN KULICH (2 loaves) 3 cakes yeast (or 3 packets dry yeast) 1/4 cup water 1/2 cup candied orange peel, diced fine 1/2 cup golden raisins 1/2 cup chopped almonds 1/4 cup orange juice 1/2 cup milk 3 3/4 to 4 3/4 cups flour 1 egg 12 egg yolks 2 cups sifted powdered sugar 1/2 teaspoon salt Zest of lemon 2 inches vanilla bean 1 cup melted butter 2 empty 2-pound coffee cans with smooth sides (no ridges) 1 cup powdered sugar Lemon juice Almonds, candied violets and small jelly beans or pastel confetti for decoration
Soften the yeast in the water. Mix the orange peel, raisins, almonds and orange juice and set aside. The orange juice softens and moistens the fruit. Mix together the milk, 1/4 cup flour and whole egg. Add the yeast to this mixture and set aside until very bubbly. If the mixture doesn't bubble in 15 minutes, add 1/8 teaspoon of sugar and wait 10 minutes more. This is your sponge. When the sponge is bubbling, beat the yolks and powdered sugar until light and pale yellow. Add the salt, lemon zest and vanilla (cut open the bean and scrape out the black seeds). Add to the egg yolk mixture 2 cups of the flour and the sponge at the same time. Mix well. Add the fruit. Mix. Beat in 1/2 cup of melted butter. Now add 1 1/2 cups of flour (a total of 3 3/4 cups at this point) and mix until smooth. Mix in remaining 1/2 cup butter. If you are mixing by hand, flour a pastry board and knead the dough on it, using as much flour as necessary. In a heavy-duty mixer the extra flour should not be necessary. Let the dough rise in an oiled bowl. This will take about 5 hours because the large amount of sugar inhibits the growth of the yeast. Punch the dough down and divide it in half. Butter the coffee cans and line them with parchment or waxed paper. This will help the kulich slide out after baking. If you don't have the coffee cans, the bread may be baked in two large 3 1/2-by-10 loaf pans or four small loaf pans. Let rise until double in bulk, about 2 hours. Place in a 325-degree oven for 15 minutes. Reduce the temperature to 300 degrees and bake for 40 minutes more. Mix the cup of powdered sugar with enough lemon juice to make a thick frosting. When the kulich is cool, spread the frosting on the tops and sprinkle with decorations. I like almonds and candied violets, small jelly beans or pastel confetti. GREEK EASTER WREATH (1 wreath) 1 cake yeast (or 1 packet dry yeast) 2 tablespoons water 1 cup water 2 tablespoons soft butter 2 tablespoons sugar 1 egg 1 teaspoon crushed anise 1 teaspoon salt 3 cups flour 5 hard boiled eggs dyed red (or dyed 5 different pastel colors) 1 egg white for glaze
Dissolve the yeast in the 2 tablespoons of water. Set aside. Mix the 1 cup of water with the butter, sugar, egg, anise and salt. Add 2 cups of flour and the yeast and mix well. Add the remaining cup of flour to make a soft, pliable dough. If you are kneading by hand it may require a little extra flour. Knead, then let the dough rise in an oiled bowl until double in bulk. Punch down. Divide the dough into 3 equal pieces. Roll each piece into a rope 18 inches long. Braid the ropes and form into a ring. Join the ends by pinching together. Separate the braid enough to nestle the eggs into the wreath. Let rise until double in bulk, about 45 minutes. Brush with egg white and bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes. Reduce the temperature to 325 degrees and bake for another 40 minutes or until golden.
Note: A buttered custard cup placed in the center of the ring after it is formed will help the bread to keep a more perfect shape. POLISH BABKA (1 loaf) 2 cakes yeast (or 2 packets dry) 1/3 cup water 1/2 cup butter, softened 1/2 cup sugar 4 egg yolks Zest of 1 lemon 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon 4 cups flour 1 cup milk 1 cup currants Sliced Almonds Confectioner's sugar for decoration
Dissolve the yeast in the 1/3 cup water and set aside. Place the butter, sugar and yolks in a bowl and beat until creamy. Add the lemon zest, salt and cinnamon. Add 2 cups of the flour and mix well. Add currants, yeast and milk and mix until smooth. Beat in the remaining 2 cups of flour. The dough will be soft and sticky. Place in a clean oiled bowl and cover with a towel. Let rise until double in bulk. Punch down and place in a buttered bundt pan that has been sprinkled with almonds. Let the dough rise until double in bulk. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.When this bread is unmolded the top will be decorated with almonds. Lightly sprinkle with confectioner's sugar. ITALIAN PANETTONE (1 large loaf) 2 cakes yeast (or 2 packets dry) 1/4 cup water 1/2 cup flour 1 cup soft butter 1/2 cup sugar 3 egg yolks 2 eggs 1 inch vanilla bean 1 teaspoon salt 1/4 cup milk 4 to 5 cups flour 1/2 cup raisins 1/2 cup candied orange peel, minced 1/2 cup blanched almonds 1/2 cup candied citron or angelics, minced 1 egg yolk mixed with 2 tablespoons of cream Powdered sugar
Dissolve the yeast in 1/4 cup of water. Stir in 1/2 cup of flour to make a sponge. Let the sponge rest in a warm place until bubbly. Place the butter, sugar, yolks and whole eggs in a bowl and mix well. Split the vanilla bean and scrape the seeds into the milk, and add to the egg mixture. Then add salt and 2 cups of the flour. When it is mixed, add the sponge. Beat in the fruit and nuts. Continue adding the flour until you have a dough which can be kneaded comfortably. Don't add too much flour or the bread will be dry and tough. The proper texture is achieved when the dough is sticky enough to require a bit of flour to keep it off your hands. Knead, then allow the dough to rise in a clean oiled bowl until double in bulk. Punch down and form into a fat round bun with a smooth top. Place this bun in a 10-inch springform pan that is buttered and lined with parchment or waxed paper. Allow the dough to rise double again, being sure to keep it covered so that the surface doesn't dry out. Just before baking, brush with a glaze made from the egg yolk and cream. Place in a 375-degree oven for 15 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 325 degrees and continue baking for about 10 minutes. rCool in the mold for 10 minutes, then unmold and cool on a wire rack. Sprinkle the top with powdered sugar if you wish. MEXICAN BREAD (2 loaves) 2 cakes yeast (or 2 packets dry yeast) 3/4 cup water 1/2 cup butter or lard 1/2 cup sugar 4 eggs 4 1/2 cups flour 1 inch vanilla bean 1/4 cup butter or lard 1/4 cup flour 1 1/2 teaspoons water 1 egg yolk mixed with 2 tablespoons cream
Dissolve the yeast in 3/4 cup water. Cream together the butter, sugar and eggs. Add 2 cups of flour to the creamed mixture. Add the yeast. Mix well. Scrape the black seeds out of the vanilla bean and add the seeds to the dough. Continue adding the remaining flour to the dough to form a slightly sticky texture. Knead for 5 minutes using just enough flour to keep the dough off your hands. Place in a clean greased bowl and allow to rise until double in bulk.Punch down and shape into 2 10-inch circles about 2 inches thick. Place on a greased baking sheet and cover with a cloth. Let rise until double in bulk. Using a very sharp knife or razor, make 3 parallel slashes across the top of the loaves (as if you are making lines to write on). The center line should be longer than the other two. Mix the 1/4-cup of butter with the 1/4-cup of flour and add the 1 1/2 teaspoons of water. Place this in a pasltry bag fitted with a small plain tip. When the bread is double in bulk, and slashed, brush with the egg wash made with 1 yolk and 2 tablespoons of cream. Using the slashes as guidelines, write Felice Pascuas with the pastry bag. For a special treat, you may want to divide the second loaf into individual loaves for the members of your family and write their names on the loaves. Bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes, or until golden. PORTUGUESE EASTER BREAD (1 loaf) 3 cakes yeast 1/2 cup water 1/3 cup flour 1/4 teaspoon sugar 3 eggs 1 cup sugar 1 teaspoon salt Zest of 1 lemon Pinch saffron 1/4 cup milk 3 1/2 to 4 cups flour 1/2 cup melted butter 4 hardboiled, dyed eggs 1 egg yolk mixed with 2 tablespoons cream
Dissolve the yeast in the 1/2 cup water. Add 1/3 cup flour and the 1/4 teaspoon sugar. Allow to sit in a warm place until bubbly. This is the sponge. Beat the eggs with the sugar until thick. Add the salt and lemon zest. Grind the saffron to a powder by rubbing between your fingers. Add it to the milk. Add 2 cups flour to the egg mixture. When it is mixed in, add the sponge and the milk. Continue mixing in the flour, alternating it with the melted butter. When all of the butter is mixed in, place the dough on a floured board and knead until elastic, using as little extra flour as possible. If you are using a mixer with a dough hook, the extra flour is not necessary. Allow the dough to rise in a greased bowl in a warm place until double in bulk.Punch down. Cut off a ball of dough the size of an orange. Shape the rest into a large smooth bun and place it in a 10-inch springform pan that has been buttered and lined with parchment. Place the dyed eggs on the dough and anchor in place with strips of the reserved dough forming a cross over each egg. Let rise until double. The rising will be slow because of the sugar. Brush with the egg glaze. Bake at 325 degrees for 1 hour.