Rising to the Occasion

Festive breads made from a few basic ingredients are a delicious way to celebrate Easter.

April 07, 2004|By Ellen Uzelac | Ellen Uzelac,Special to the Sun

Think Easter. Think breads.

On no other holiday is this ordinary staple elevated to such dizzying heights. How else to explain tsoureki, kulich, colomba pasquale, crescia al formaggio, brioche and, of course, hot cross buns? We're not talking sliced bread here, but exotica. Best yet: You, too, can do this at home.

"It's part of the celebration of making the meal special to make the bread for it. It's something that goes way back into our deep religious subconscious," says Linda Eckhardt, an award-winning cookbook author and a cooking instructor at A Cook's Table in Baltimore. "It's amazing to think of taking as few as three inert ingredients -- flour, yeast and salt -- and putting water with it and coming up with a bazillion things. It's like a miracle. And Easter takes it to a whole new level."

With Easter just a few days away, enthusiasts like Eckhardt have begun to stock up on the ingredients associated with traditional holiday breads: golden raisins, currants, nuts, cheeses, sugar, spices, butter and eggs. How to describe the taste treat to come? "Full, rich, satisfying," says Eckhardt, who is co-host of the ABC Business TalkRadio Network show Don't Talk With Your Mouth Full. "Yeasty, perfumed, savory."

More than anything else, Easter bread is about symbolism. The dough itself, rising as it does, represents the resurrection of Christ. Eggs signify rebirth and fertility in many cultures so they are used with abandon in many Easter breads. Then there are the shapes - rings that mark the circle of life; the cross; even a dove, another strong Christian symbol.

The Greek bread, Tsoureki, typically is made with red eggs, symbolizing the blood of Jesus. [A cooking tip: To modernize the recipe, consider using pastel-colored eggs as the scarlet dye tends to run when baked.] Kulich, a Russian bread, is shaped in a big loaf the size of a two-pound coffee can. Traditionally, Russian Orthodox families would take the bread to church on Easter Sunday to have it blessed before enjoying it at home or sharing it with the poor. Hot Cross Buns, ubiquitous at Easter, actually pre-date Christianity, despite their crosses.

"Easter bread is very old," according to Amy Bentley, a New York University historian who specializes in food and culture. "People take these everyday ordinary materials and make them part of their symbolic world. Bread can be very ordinary but also very special depending on how you prepare it, how long it takes to make it, what you put into it. That's what moves it from a mundane object to an object of special status. It kind of happens organically with people."

Carole M. Counihan, co-editor-in-chief of "Food and Foodways," an international scholarly journal devoted to the study of food, culture and history, recalls spending an Easter in Sardinia, which has a huge tradition of elaborate breads, particularly at Easter. In one town, Counihan observed a woman at home baking bread that she crafted into "peaks that looked like breasts." In a neighboring town, at a local bakery, she saw an Easter bread decorated with the initials "B.P." for "Buona Pasqua," or "Happy Easter." Her observations that Easter 20 years ago resulted in a well-known essay on changes in the economy of consumption.

"Bread in that culture was absolutely the center of life. The saying was: 'He who has bread never dies,'" notes Counihan, an anthropology professor at Millersville University in Pennsylvania. "It's endlessly fascinating - bread. And at Easter it's turned into ephemeral art."

Noted food writer Carol Field, e-mailing from Italy where she is researching a new book, says, "I like making breads for special occasions. It's a way of marking the passing of time and the arrival of special days in the calendar. And, of course, it's a way of passing on tradition from one generation to the next." Her favorite Easter bread: Gubana, a dense nut and raisin Italian bread made with a panettone-like dough filled with a mixture of raisins, walnuts, hazelnuts, pinenuts, almonds, apricot jam and cocoa and moistened with the flavors of five wines and liqueurs.

For those for whom baking is not second-nature, the notion of actually making Easter bread might seem a stretch. It shouldn't.

"Bread machines take out the worry for you," according to Shirley Holmes, who develops recipes for companies and is the author of "Easy Bread Machine Baking," [Firefly Books, $19.95, 2000.] "In the past people have been very concerned with yeast because it's a living organism. Water that's too hot or too cold can kill a recipe. The bread machine removes the intimidation factor. And it's very therapeutic -- cutting the bread, rolling the bread, shaping it. It just feels wonderful in your hands."

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