Lovely loaves and sweet rolls

Traditions: For many, Easter means sweet yeast breads and buns that are a welcome part of the holiday feast.

March 21, 2001|By Marlene Parrish | Marlene Parrish,LOS ANGELES TIMES SYNDICATE

When it comes to baking sweet yeast breads, almost any excuse will do. Kneading, braiding and pinching are the pleasures of the baker at any time, but when holidays roll around, experimental and ho-hum baking ceases and rituals take over the kitchen. After all, there are legends to continue and traditions to keep.

Throughout the Christian world, yeast breads are traditionally served for the Easter celebration. A little sweeter, a little richer, a little more complicated than our daily bread, these baked goods are the specialty of ethnic bakers. Russians dig out tall coffee cans to bake towering loaves of kulich. Mexicans pat sweet crumb topping on seashell-shaped buns called pan dulce. Slovenians bake row after row of potica. Germans knead fruits into stollen or give a reprise to pre-Lenten fasching buns, deep-fried apricot-filled doughnuts.

Most holiday buns and breads come with traditions whose tales are handed down to us from storytellers. Here's an example from Italy.

Italians bake their panettone all year long, a light yellow, briochelike dough, studded with raisins and candied fruit peel. But the traditional panettone changes shape at Easter in eastern Lombardy when it's baked into a bun called colomba (dove). Bake-shop windows are filled with raisin-eyed, almond-beaked doves made of panettone dough.

The custom dates back to 1176 when two doves were supposed to have landed near the Milanese army during a battle between the locals and the army of the Holy Roman Empire. Needing inspiration at the time, the Milanese saw the doves as a sign of divine protection, got their second wind and defeated the intruders. In the church of San Simpliciano there, the anniversary of the battle is still celebrated by a Mass during which two doves are released from the altar.

Greece also has its traditions. On Easter morning, Greeks celebrate Christ's resurrection by cracking red-dyed, hard-cooked eggs buried deep within a braided wreath bread to signify remembrance, renewal and luck. The red color symbolizes the blood of Christ. The egg symbolizes life.

Paska is the centerpiece of the Ukrainian Easter table, celebrating the most important feast in the Ukrainian church year. The name paska comes from the Hebrew word for Passover and signifies peace, salvation and happiness.

Ukraine is considered to be the breadbasket of Europe because of its exceptionally fertile farmland. With a ready abundance of wheat flour, Ukrainian women developed excellent bread recipes.

In many church communities, Ukrainians bake their paska at home, then put it into a family Easter basket to be taken to the church for a blessing. Hard-cooked and decorated eggs, cheeses, ham, smoked sausages, baked veal, cuts of lamb and pork roast are packed along with fresh horseradish and beets. The basket signifies abundance and the breaking of the Lenten fast.

Some of the best buns and hot breads are baked in British kitchens. The big icing X on fragrant, spicy hot cross buns might be thought of as a simple reminder of Christ's resurrection in today's world, but its roots are pagan. One version says that before the evangelizing of England, around A.D. 600, Anglo-Saxon pagans baked little breads as part of the joy of welcoming spring. Early Roman missionaries didn't want to break the ritual and be seen as the mean bad guys, so they compromised with a win-win solution. They blessed the pagan buns with a Christian cross.

Other storytellers say that buns and breads were slashed with a cross to ward off evil spirits that might prevent their rising. Nice try, but bakers have always just slashed breads to let them rise evenly.

Going even further back, both Greeks and Romans had festive cakes and used the pagan cross as a decoration. The cross has long been thought to have represented both sun and fire, the sun symbol being a circle that was bisected by two right-angled lines into four quarters, which represented the four seasons.

Hot Cross Buns

These cinnamon-flavored, currant-filled rolls had their origins in England and were traditionally served on Good Friday. Bake all of them in a jellyroll pan as a timesaver.

Makes 35 rolls

ROLLS:

4 to 4 1/2 cups flour

1/3 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

2 packages active dry yeast

3/4 cup milk

1/2 cup oil

3 eggs

1/2 cup dried currants or raisins

1 egg white, lightly beaten

FROSTING:

1 1/2 cups powdered sugar

2 tablespoons butter, softened

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1 to 2 tablespoons milk

To prepare rolls, in large bowl, combine 1 1/2 cups of the flour, sugar, salt, cinnamon and yeast and mix well.

In small saucepan, heat milk and oil until very warm (120 degrees to 130 degrees). Add warm liquid and eggs to flour mixture. Blend at low speed with electric beater until moistened. Beat 3 minutes at medium speed. By hand, stir in currants and additional 2 1/4 to 2 1/2 cups flour until dough pulls cleanly away from sides of bowl.

On floured surface, knead in 1/4 to 1/2 cup flour until dough is smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes. Place dough in greased bowl and cover loosely with plastic wrap and cloth towel. Let rise in warm place (80 degrees to 85 degrees) until light and doubled in size, 30 to 45 minutes.

Grease 15-inch-by-10-inch-by- 1-inch baking pan. Punch down dough several times to remove all air bubbles. Divide dough into 35 equal portions and shape each into a ball. Place in prepared pan, 7 rows one way, 5 rows the other. Brush with egg white. Cover and let rise in warm place until light and doubled in size, 20 to 30 minutes. Uncover dough. Bake at 375 degrees 15 to 20 minutes or until golden brown. Cool slightly.

To prepare frosting, in small bowl, combine powdered sugar, butter, vanilla and 1 tablespoon milk and beat well, adding additional milk until of desired piping consistency. Using decorating bag or spoon, make crosses on each roll.

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