Compared with the fire hose that is the Christmas season, Easter is a gentle April shower.
Where Christmas has inflated into a two-month carnival that inspires a competitive-cooking impulse in many, Easter’s foods are more often homey family favorites. But they often carry rich meanings that are cherished each year.
Artie Sarayiotes of Raleigh says her family would have a fit if Easter came without her tsoureki. She keeps plenty in the freezer. (It’s good on other holidays, too.)
Tsoureki (tsoo-REH-kee) is a traditional Greek bread that is braided and often decorated with red-dyed eggs to represent the blood of Christ. Sarayiotes’ recipe contains butter, sugar, eggs, cinnamon and, importantly, ground mahleb.
Mahleb (MAH-lehb), dried black cherry pits, is a Middle Eastern flavoring, according to “The Food Lover’s Companion” by Sharon Tyler Herbst and Ron Herbst. Sarayiotes likes to grind her own using a rolling pin.
“I put in a good teaspoon, maybe a little more, of mahleb. I put a lot in. I want that nice aroma. Don’t be afraid of your mahleb,” she says. “I love it. When anybody goes to Greece, I say ‘bring me mahleb.’ ”
She has a hard time describing the taste. “It has a sweet taste. It takes out the bready flavor. It’s very tasty in tsoureki, very nice,” she says.
The Savory Spice Shop website ( www.savoryspiceshop.com) lists this description: “It has a floral, almost rose-like, flavor combined with a subtle almond nuttiness.”
Sarayiotes, who in the past has baked tsoureki for sale at her church, Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Raleigh, says some people use mastic, which has a resinous licorice-like flavor, instead. But not her.
“We’re not mastic people,” she says. “I can’t make tsoureki without mahleb.”
‘Summit’ for Christians
Special Easter breads are found all over the world. Many of the recipes use rich doughs that contain eggs, sugar and butter because the early Catholic church restricted the use of those items during the 40-day period of self-deprivation called Lent. People would look forward to and celebrate their return at Easter.
Because Lent precedes Easter, it can put a crimp on Christmas-style partying and feasting.
Christmas celebrates snow, fir trees, eggnog, carol-singing chipmunks, Charles Dickens and the birth of the Christian Messiah, for those who are so inclined. Belief is not required for admittance.
Easter, instead, focuses on one week – for many, one day. It’s primarily a Christian religious holiday. And there are also issues of life and death that believers must deal with.
“The cross and resurrection have always been the summit of the Christian year, but as you note, Christmas seems to have gained in importance, certainly in cultural significance,” says Will Willimon, professor at Duke Divinity School, retired Methodist bishop and pastor of Duke Memorial United Methodist Church in Durham.
“Much of Christmas has been sentimentalized. Perhaps it’s more difficult to sentimentalize a man who is tortured to death, in the tomb three days, and then risen?”
The hot cross buns
Cardamom isn’t the usual spice in the familiar Easter hot cross buns, but it is found in Lionel Vatinet’s version of the bread, and it’s there to honor family.
As a French native and French-trained baker, Vatinet, owner of La Farm bakery in Cary, knew nothing about hot cross buns before opening the bakery in 1999. The bread comes from the English and, later, German baking traditions, which is why it’s popular in the Moravian community in Winston-Salem.
Traditional hot cross buns are sweet with a bit of cinnamon and studded with fruit or raisins and sometimes nuts. A cross of icing drizzled on the top symbolizes the Crucifixion.
“We are close to a Catholic church, so I was thinking of what to propose for Easter. People had to describe to me what they looked like. I decided to use a brioche dough and some raisins,” Vatinet says. “My father-in-law is from Norway, and he loved a bread there with cardamom. So I added it to make my father-in-law happy, and the customers embraced it, too.”
Vatinet offers hot cross buns only from Mardi Gras through Easter, and they quickly disappear from the store.
At Loaf bakery in Durham, hot cross buns are really special – owner Ron Graff offers them for only a day or two before Easter Sunday. (The bakery is closed on Sundays.) Graff says he was familiar with the bread because it’s popular even in Canada, where he’s from. Customers were asking for it from the time the store opened in 2011.
“But I wanted to really figure out how to do them traditionally. We use our own house-candied citrus peel and needed to have enough of it,” he says. “The house-candied peels are actual citrus peels, so they’re more substantial than the citron and stuff people are familiar with. They’re more zesty.”
Graff offered hot cross buns for the first time last year. He uses a dough that includes cinnamon, sugar, eggs and butter, but that isn’t as rich as a brioche dough.
One big difference: He doesn’t use icing to form the cross on top. Instead, he pipes on an unleavened dough paste made from oil, water and flour. The dough cross doesn’t caramelize a lot during baking and stays very white, he says.
In other parts of the world, Italy has a brioche-style bread with raisins, and lemon and orange zest. The Russian kulich is a tall, cake-like bread with candied fruit and saffron. In Argentina, there’s rosca de Pascua.
The bread was Arabic in origin, says Cary food writer Sandra A. Gutierrez, author of several cookbooks on Latino cooking. Spain brought its version of the bread to the New World.
Rosca de Pascua is a rich, sweet yeast bread shaped in a circle – more symbolism of eternity – and sometimes has a sugar glaze. The name means “Easter wreath.”
The bread is made at other times of the year – for Epiphany, a version is formed in different shapes and studded with dried cherries – but it’s special for Easter in Argentina, Gutierrez says.
So if you are looking forward to Grandma’s potato rolls or ham biscuits today, enjoy – you are part of an ever-rising Easter movement. With no Scrooges about it.
Debbie Moose is an award-winning food writer and cookbook author. A former News & Observer food editor, she writes the “Sunday Dinner” column for The N&O’s Arts & Living section on the first Sunday of each month and the “The Tasteful Garden” column for Home & Garden on the third Saturday of each month. www.debbiemoose.com