As Easter Sunday approaches, bakers throughout the Christian world prepare to make light, brightly decorated breads to grace their Easter breakfast and dinner tables in celebration of the end of Lent.
Originally baked as a tribute to the end of winter’s sparse fare and later associated with the celebrations that followed periods of religious fasting, Easter breads are customarily decorated with colored eggs, drizzled with icing, studded with bits of candied and dried fruit, divided into ropes of dough and elaborately braided into rounds, or stuffed with rich fillings.
Ancient meanings surrounding the ingredients and the design of these celebratory breads are based on Easter and springtime traditions. The results are sweet-flavored pastries that can be enjoyed throughout the year.
Probably the most popular bread, or the one that comes to mind most often is the hot cross bun.
A hot cross bun, a round bun made from a rich yeast dough containing flour, milk, sugar, butter, eggs, currants and spices, such as cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and clove, is traditionally eaten in England on Good Friday. They are marked on top with a cross, whether cut in the dough or composed of strips of pastry. The mark is of ancient origin, connected with religious offerings of bread, which replaced earlier, less civilized offerings of blood.
But the familiar hot cross buns are only part of a multitude of breads of all shapes, sizes and flavors that are enjoyed around the world. They have myriad names, all seemingly different. Their names are often some form of the word paska, which means “Easter.”
For instance, in Greece, the classic Easter bread is Tsoureki. This Easter treat is traditionally shaped into a braid. A red egg is cooked and tucked into the braids of dough. The bread is said to represent the light given to us by Christ’s resurrection and the red egg represents Christ’s blood. Another version of Greek Easter bread is cooked as a circle with red eggs forming a cross across the top of the bread, baked into a braid and studded with scarlet eggs. Different versions many include a citrus flavored bread topped with nuts.
Similiarly, an Italian Easter Bread is rich with symbolism, baked in the shape of a wreath to symbolize the crown of thorns worn by Jesus Christ at the crucifixion. The three pieces of dough braided together represent the three elements of the Holy Trinity. The bread is either baked with colored eggs directly in the dough or with white eggs that can be decorated after baking.
In Finland, it’s braided cardamom bread or Pulla, spiced with cardamom and sprinkled with sugar and almonds, this rich yeasted bread is a showstopper. In Finland it’s traditionally eaten with coffee or tea.
The Dutch celebrate the first day after the close of Lent with an extensive brunch that includes paasbrood, a cinnamon flavored, rich bread studded with raisins and citrus peel.
In Russia, the most famous Easter bread is a cross between brioche and challah and similiar to a German stollen or Italian panettone, called kulich. It is a lightly sweetened, egg-glazed cylinder, often baked in a coffee can to make a tall loaf. Kulich should be lightly browned on top when done. A cylindrical kulich is sliced from the top in rounds with the first slice preserved as a lid. It is traditionally eaten with paskha, an enriched mixture of curd cheese, spices, nuts, dried fruit and sugar molded into a pyramid and decorated with religious symbols. The blend of dairy fats celebrates the end of Lenten prohibitions.
Speaking of panettone, Italians make a similar sweet bread at Easter, but it’s made in the shape of a dove, called columba di Pasqua. This special Easter version, which is topped with sugar and almonds, is called columba di Pasqua. This dove-shaped confection is generally described as the most popular Easter bread in the country. Some theories exist regarding its genesis. The dove symbolizes spring, Christ and peace.
Several other Easter breads are shaped or decorated in ways that recall the Easter story, symbolizing hope and rebirth.
The name itself, Easter, comes from the Anglo-Saxon goddess of light and spring, Eostre — something we have anticipated since the vernal equinox. Now that that days grow longer and brighter, it is time to celebrate.
Below are some examples of these symbolic breads:
Kate Lawson is the former Detroit News food writer.
Hot Cross Buns
1 cup milk
1 tablespoon milk
1 package dry active yeast
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon sugar
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups bread flour
1/2 cup black raisins
2 tablespoons candied lemon peel
2 tablespoons candied orange peel
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/3 teaspoons ground cloves
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 large eggs
1 large egg yolk
1/3 cup confectioners’ sugar
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
Coat a large bowl with oil and set aside. Combine the 1 cup milk, yeast, and the 1 teaspoon sugar in a small bowl and let stand until bubbly. Combine the flours, remaining sugar, raisins, candied peels, salt, and spices in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a dough hook (or in a large mixing bowl) and mix on low speed. Add the butter, 2 eggs, and the yeast mixture and continue to mix until a sticky dough forms — about 3 minutes. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface and knead by hand until smooth — about 5 minutes. (If dough has been combined by hand, increase kneading time to 10 minutes.) Form the dough into a ball, place it in the prepared bowl, and turn to coat all sides with oil. Cover with a clean, damp kitchen towel and let rise in a warm, draft-free place until it doubles in volume — about 1 hour.
Shape the buns
Line a baking pan with parchment paper and set aside. Punch the dough down, transfer to a lightly floured surface, and knead for 3 minutes. Divide the dough into 12 equal-sized pieces — about 3 1/2 ounces each. Shape each piece into a ball and place the balls about 1 inch apart in three rows of four on the prepared pan. Cover and let rise until the buns double in volume and touch one another — about 1 1/4 hours.
Preheat oven to 500 degrees. In a small bowl, combine the egg yolk with 1 tablespoon water. Using a pastry brush, lightly brush the mixture on the top of each bun. Place buns in the lower third of the oven and reduce oven temperature to 400 degrees. Bake until golden brown — about 20 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack. In a small bowl, combine the confectioners’ sugar, remaining milk, and vanilla. Stir until smooth. When buns have cooled slightly, drizzle a horizontal line across each row of buns, followed by a vertical line to form a cross on the crown of each bun. Makes 12.
Per serving: 330 calories; 6.5 g fat (3 g saturated fat; 18 percent calories from fat); 61 g carbohydrates; 24 g sugar; 59 mg cholesterol; 26 mg sodium; 8 g protein; 2 g fiber.
Recipe from Martha Stewart
Greek Easter bread. Tsoureki (tsoo-REH-kee) is the traditional bread of Greek Easter. The traditional flavoring for the bread is a spice called mahlep. In a pinch, you can substitute vanilla, but the mahlep is worth finding. It adds a distinctive cherry/almond, sweet-nutty flavor that’s unlike anything you’ve tried before. The red Easter eggs that make this traditional bread so special are for decorative purposes only. Do not eat them.
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, divided
1 cup sugar
4 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast (from two 1/4-ounce envelopes)
1 cup whole milk
1 stick unsalted butter, cut into pieces and softened, plus more for bowl
3 large eggs, lightly beaten, plus 1 egg, beaten, for egg wash
2 teaspoons coarse salt
2 oranges, zested, plus 2 tablespoons juice
1 tablespoon mahlep or pure vanilla extract
2 to 3 cups bread flour
Combine 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, sugar, and yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with whisk attachment; whisk on low speed to combine. Heat milk in a small saucepan over medium heat until it registers 110 degrees. With mixer speed on medium-low, gradually add milk to mixer bowl, scraping down sides if necessary. Mix until combined. Remove bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let stand until bubbling, about 30 minutes.
Generously butter a large bowl; set aside. Return mixer bowl to stand and attach dough hook. Mix in lightly beaten eggs, in 3 additions, on medium speed. Add remaining all-purpose flour and salt and mix until incorporated. Add butter, orange zest and juice, and vanilla, mixing until combined. Gradually mix in 2 cups bread flour, scraping down sides of bowl if necessary; then add enough remaining bread flour to form a soft, slightly sticky dough that pulls away from the side of bowl. Increase speed to medium-high and mix until dough is very smooth, about 8 minutes. Form dough into a ball, place in buttered bowl, and turn to coat. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until 1 1/2 times its original size, about 1 1/2 hours.
Line two 11-by-17-inch rimmed baking sheets with parchment. Punch down dough. Cut dough in half with a large knife or bench scraper, then cut each half into 3 equal pieces. Keeping 3 pieces covered with plastic wrap, roll remaining 3 pieces into 16-inch-long ropes with your hands. (If dough becomes dry, lightly dampen your palms to help in rolling.) Loosely braid ropes together, pinch ends to seal, and place loaf diagonally on 1 baking sheet. Repeat process with remaining 3 pieces of dough. Loosely cover each loaf with plastic wrap coated with cooking spray and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees with racks in upper and lower thirds. Transfer baking sheets to oven and bake bread 10 minutes. Remove 1 baking sheet from oven. Quickly and carefully push 5 eggs, larger side down, into the center of the loaf, spacing them evenly down the length. Brush with egg wash and immediately return to oven. Repeat with remaining loaf. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees and bake, rotating baking sheets from top to bottom and front to back halfway through, until loaves are deep golden and sound hollow when tapped on bottom, about 25 minutes more. (If necessary, cover with parchment-lined foil to prevent overbrowning.) Transfer bread to a wire rack; let cool completely. Makes 2 loaves or 16 servings.
Per serving: 282 calories; 8 g fat (4 g saturated fat; 26 percent calories from fat); 45 g carbohydrates; 14 g sugar; 63 mg cholesterol; 272 mg sodium; 7 g protein; 1 g fiber.
Polish Cheese Babka
1 (.25 ounce) package active dry yeast
1 pinch white sugar
1/4 cup warm water (110 degrees)
1/2 cup butter, melted
1/4 cup white sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3/4 cup lukewarm milk
4 cups all-purpose flour, divided
1 1/2 cups farmers cheese
1/3 cup white sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons sour cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon dried lemon peel
2 tablespoons butter, melted
Sprinkle the yeast and the pinch of sugar over the warm water; stir to dissolve. Let stand until foamy, about 10 minutes.
Combine the 1/2 cup butter, 1/4 cup sugar, salt, 2 teaspoons of vanilla, milk, and 3 eggs in a bowl with 1 cup of flour and mix well. Add the yeast mixture and beat for 1 minute. Gradually add the remaining flour to form a soft dough. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, adding small amounts of flour as necessary to prevent sticking. Shape the dough into a round, and place it in a greased bowl, turning to coat. Cover with plastic wrap and let the dough rise at room temperature until doubled in size, about 1 1/2 hours.
Beat together the farmers’ cheese, 1/3 cup sugar, sour cream, 1 egg, 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, and dried lemon peel in a bowl until smooth. Set the filling aside. Lightly oil a 10-inch fluted tube pan (such as a Bundt).
Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and pat into a 10-inch by 12-inch rectangle. Brush the dough with the 2 tablespoons of melted butter. Spread the cheese filling evenly over the dough. Roll the dough up like a jelly roll, starting from the long end; twist the dough 6 to 8 times to form a rope. Pinch the seams and ends closed and arrange the rope of dough in the greased pan. Cover loosely and let rise 1 hour.
Preheat an oven to 350 degrees.
Bake the babka until deep golden brown, 40 to 45 minutes. Remove from oven and let stand for 5 minutes; invert the babka onto a wire rack and remove the pan. Allow the babka to cool for at least 2 hours before slicing. Makes 12 servings.
Per serving: 356 calories; 14 g fat (8 g saturated fat; 54 percent calories from fat); 47 g carbohydrates; 15 g sugar; 96 mg cholesterol; 409 mg sodium; 10 g protein; 1 g fiber.
Paska (also known as Kulich) is a classic Easter Bread. It’s a wonderful Easter tradition shared by Russian and Ukrainian people. It’s traditionally served with Pashka, a creamy cheese.
1 package active dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water
1/4 cup sugar plus 1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup scalded milk, cooled to 110 degrees
1 cup plus 3 to 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
8 tablespoons unsalted butter
8 large egg yolks (reserve 2 egg whites)
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 teaspoons cardamom
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup golden raisins
1/4 cup slivered almonds
1/4 cup chopped candied orange rind
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
2 teaspons lemon juice
1/8 teaspoon almond extract
2-3 teaspoons warm water
In a large bowl, combine yeast, water, 1/4 cup sugar and milk, mixing until yeast and sugar have dissolved. Stir in 1 cup flour until well blended. Cover and let stand in a warm place for 1 hour.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine butter, 1/2 cup sugar and egg yolks. Add yeast-flour mixture, stirring well. Add vanilla, cardamom, salt and enough of the 3 to 3 1/2 cups flour to make a soft dough. Stir in raisins, almonds and orange rind.
In a small bowl, beat 2 reserved egg whites until stiff. Fold them into the dough made in Step 2. Knead by machine or hand until a smooth and elastic dough forms, about 3-5 minutes. Place in greased bowl, turning once to coat both sides. Cover with greased plastic wrap and let rise until doubled.
Coat a 2-pound coffee can or kulich pan with cooking spray. Punch down dough and knead a few times. Place it in the prepared can, cover with greased plastic wrap and let rise until dough reaches the top of the can.
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Place pan on a baking sheet and bake 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake another 35 to 40 minutes or until tester comes out clean.
While kulich is baking, prepare glaze by combining in a small bowl the confectioners’ sugar, lemon juice, almond extract and enough water to make a smooth, runny glaze.
Remove kulich from oven and let cool 10 minutes. Unmold from can and cool on a wire rack. While still slightly warm, drizzle glaze over the top. To serve, cut off the crown and slice base into rounds. To keep any leftovers moist, replace the crown.
Per serving: 393 calories; 13 g fat (6 g saturated fat; 30 percent calories from fat); 62 g carbohydrates; 26 g sugar; 44 mg cholesterol; 119 mg sodium; 8 g protein; 2 g fiber.
Recipe courtesy of Anya von Bremzen, “Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook.”
Serve with the bread kulich. Use a farmers’ cheese that resembles very dry cottage cheese; do not use the slicing cheese that is also called farmer cheese or Amish farmer cheese. If you have a silicone, use a clean flower pot or a Bundt pan, it will work wonderfully in this recipe.
2 pounds cottage cheese or farmer’s cheese
1 1/2 cups sugar
8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature, cut into pieces
6 large hard-cooked egg yolks, crumbled
1 1/2 cups heavy or whipping cream
3/4 cups ground almonds
1/2 lemon, zest grated
1 teaspoon lemon extract
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 large vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1/2 cup golden raisins
Chopped candied fruits, for decoration
In a large bowl, combine the cottage cheese or farmer’s cheese, sugar, cream cheese, and egg yolks, stirring to mix.
In batches, process the mixture in a food processor, adding an equal amount of cream to each batch, until completely smooth. Transfer back to the bowl.
Stir in the ground almonds, lemon zest, lemon extract, and vanilla extract. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean and add them to the cheese mixture along with the raisins. Mix thoroughly.
Line a clean, unused 8-cup flower pot with a double layer of rinsed and squeezed-dry cheesecloth. Spoon the cheese mixture into the lined pan, then fold the ends of the cheesecloth neatly over the top. Place a saucer on the cheesecloth, then a 2-pound weight, such as a can, on the saucer. Put the flower pot in a bowl large enough for the liquid to drain into. Refrigerate for at least 12 hours.
Empty the bowl. Unmold the pashka onto a serving plate and carefully remove the cheesecloth. Decorate with candied fruit, pressing some of the fruit into the pashka to form the letters XP, which stands for Khristos voskres (“Christ has risen”). Makes 12 servings.
Per serving: 422 calories; 24 g fat (12 g saturated fat; 51 percent calories from fat); 40 g carbohydrates; 36 g sugar; 163 mg cholesterol; 318 mg sodium; 12 g protein; 1 g fiber.
Braided Cardamom Bread Pulla
From Finland. Recipe adapted from Saveur.
1 1/3 cups milk, heated to 115 degrees
2/3 cup sugar
4 teaspoons ground cardamom
3 eggs, lightly beaten
6 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes, at room temperature
1 tablespoon heavy cream
2 (1/4-ounce) packages active dry yeast
1 egg yolk
Crushed lump sugar, for garnish (optional)
Sliced almonds, for garnish (optional)
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle, combine milk, sugar, 3 teaspoons cardamom, and yeast; stir together and let sit until foamy, 10 minutes. Add eggs; mix to combine. Add flour and salt; mix until a dough forms. Replace paddle with hook attachment; knead dough on medium speed for 2 minutes. While kneading, slowly add butter in batches, mixing until incorporated before adding next batch, 3-4 minutes; continue kneading for 4 minutes more after last of butter is added. Transfer dough to a greased bowl and cover with plastic wrap; let sit until doubled in size, about 1 hour. Punch down dough; cover again with plastic wrap and let sit until fully risen, 30 minutes.
Heat oven to 375 degrees. Transfer dough to a work surface and divide into 2 equal pieces. Set 1 piece aside and divide other piece into 3 equal portions. Roll each portion between your palms and work surface to create a 16-inch rope. Braid ropes together to form a loaf, following the instructions below. Transfer loaf to a parchment paper–lined baking sheet. Repeat with second dough piece. Cover loaves with plastic wrap and let sit until slightly puffed up, about 20 minutes.
Whisk together remaining cardamom, cream, and egg yolk in a small bowl; brush over loaves. Sprinkle with sugar and almonds (if using); bake, one loaf at a time, until golden brown, 20–25 minutes. Transfer to a rack; let cool 10 minutes before serving. Makes 16 servings.
Per serving: 297 calories; 7 g fat (3 g saturated fat; 21 percent calories from fat); 50 g carbohydrates; 10 g sugar; 59 mg cholesterol; 148 mg sodium; 8 g protein; 2 g fiber.