Festive breads, eggs brighten tables at Easter

April 12, 1995|By Lorna J. Sass | Lorna J. Sass,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

When eggs start appearing in their coats of many colors, and children begin parading home from school with their dainty, grass-filled baskets, we don't have to look at our calendars to know that it's Easter once again. For eggs are a symbol of Easter; it wouldn't feel quite like Easter if there weren't any brightly colored eggs about it.

The association of Easter with eggs is one we take for granted nowadays, but the connection has intrigued many folklorists. What is it about the egg that makes it such an ideal symbol of this particular holiday?

Imagine for a moment the utter amazement of Stone Age man when he first saw a little chick peep out of a just-hatched egg. After observing life emerge from an apparently inanimate object, primitive people must have imputed the egg with magical powers. As a result, countless creation myths evolved which described how the universe emerged from an enormous cosmic egg.

Because of its life-giving properties, the egg naturally became a symbol of continuing life. The peoples of ancient Egypt, China, Greece and Persia incorporated eggs into their spring and harvest festivals, both celebrations of the renewed life evident in nature at those times. And, as recently as 100 years ago, Estonians ate eggs while plowing, and Scots placed an egg at the bottom of their sowing basket to ensure a good harvest.

The egg's power to bring forth new life made it a natural symbol of Christ's resurrection, and in the early years of Christianity, parishioners were invited to take eggs to church to be blessed during the Easter season. These special eggs were then exchanged as gifts. In Poland, the eggs were traditionally painted red, blue and green, a reminder of the legend that Mary decorated eggs with these colors to amuse the baby Jesus.

An early tradition

But the tradition of coloring eggs began long before the Christian era. Because the life that emerged from the egg was always such a mystery to early man, he was never certain whether a good or an evil force would be released when the egg cracked open. It was in an attempt to control the outcome that man began to say charms over eggs, paint signs and symbols with positive connotations on them or dye them bright red -- a color he associated with good luck.

Eggs, which are so vital to the celebration of Easter, enrich not only the meaning of the holiday, but much of the festive fare traditionally served on that day. Just as egg-decorating techniques vary from country to country, so do recipes for special Easter breads and cakes.

In parts of Germany, for example, Easter bread men have eggs for faces or bellies, while in Italy special "corona di nove," circular pastries, are baked with Easter eggs embedded on top. In Austria, young children are given nest-shaped cakes filled with eggs as Easter gifts, and in Portugal the holiday is heralded with "folares," heart-shaped pastries with eggs baked into the dough.

In her study, "An Egg at Easter," author Venetia Newall suggests that perhaps the custom of baking eggs in pastry and bread dates as far back as the Middle Ages, when bread as well as eggs were presented to the feudal lord as a form of tithe.

Other folklorists believe that the preparation of these special pastries dates all the way back to the pagan belief that by making such offerings, the donor and his loved ones were assured prosperity in the coming year.

You might like to ponder these possibilities while preparing some of the following dramatic and delicious traditional Easter breads and cakes.

Light and yeasty

This light and egg-rich yeast cake is traditionally served at the Easter Sunday feast in Czechoslovakia. It has been adapted from "Feast-Day Cakes From Many Lands," by Dorothy Spicer (Holt, Rinehart and Winston; 1960.)

Czechoslovakian Babovka

Makes 10 to 12 servings

1 envelope active dry yeast

1/2 cup lukewarm water

1 tablespoon plus 1/2 cup sugar

3 cups sifted flour

1/2 cup butter, at room temperature

4 egg yolks, well-beaten

1 teaspoon vanilla

3/4 teaspoon salt

4 egg whites, stiffly beaten

1 cup blanched almonds, coarsely chopped

Dissolve yeast in warm water. Stir in 1 tablespoon sugar and set aside 15 minutes. Stir in 1 cup flour and let rise until spongy and light, about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, cream butter and remaining 1/2 cup sugar. Beat in egg yolks and vanilla. Sift together remaining 2 cups flour and salt and beat into butter-sugar mixture. Blend in yeast mixture thoroughly. Fold in stiffly beaten egg whites and 3/4 cup chopped almonds.

Spoon mixture into well-greased and floured 9-inch tube pan. Sprinkle top with remaining 1/4 cup chopped almonds. Cover and let rise in warm place until doubled, about 2 hours. Bake at 350 degrees until top is rich golden brown and wood pick inserted in center comes out clean, 30 to 35 minutes. Cool in pan on wire rack. Remove from pan and cool completely.

Bread-weaving

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