Across most Christian cultures, as Easter draws near, there's a shared notion that the springtime celebration demands some mixture of flour, yeast, and, most definitely, eggs. The symbolism of these breads is rich, as are their flavors, which run the gamut from sweet to savory. Any of these baked goods can enliven the Easter table.
Hot cross buns are widely associated with Easter in the British Isles, Australia, New Zealand, and beyond, and they start appearing around Ash Wednesday. The yeasted dough represents the rising of Christ, and the rolls are just slightly sweet and dairy-free, reflecting the time of sacrifice during Lent. The decorative cross on the top can be formed with either pastry or icing.
At Haegele's Bakery in the Mayfair section of Philadelphia, they are filled with currants and iced on top. "We make them daily as we go into Easter, and people really look for them," says Cheryl Haegele, whose husband owns the bakery.
In southern Italy, the reigning dish is pizza chiena (a.k.a., pizzagaina, pizza ripiena, pizza rustica, or Easter pie). This stuffed bread is loaded with all the foods denied during Lent, an unimaginable number of eggs, either whisked or hard cooked, plus cheeses (pecorino is typical, as is basket cheese, the ricottalike curd found in Italian delis this time of year) and salami. For Italian Americans, there may also be some sort of ham in the mix. Note that the strong tang of cured meats and cheeses requires no added salt to the filling.
The top crust is decorated with a cross of dough strips, or perhaps egg or bunny shapes. The effect is that of a hefty quiche. The yield is large, and Italian families like Anna Florio's have been known to eat the pie at room temperature for a few days running, ending with a picnic on "little" Easter on the following Monday.
"My family is from Campania, but in the Philadelphia area you'll find descendants from Abruzzo, Naples, and Calabria all eat this dish," says Florio, who runs La Cucina at the Market cooking school in University City. "We always make it on Saturday before Easter, and then it's a treat we enjoy for a few days. It's something we really look forward to, and it gets better every day."
Another Neapolitan Easter delicacy is pastieria di grano, a single-crusted dessert pie, made with wheat berries and ricotta sweetened with sugar and orange juice and/or zest. The grainy texture, Florio says, can be something of an acquired taste. South Philadelphia bakery Termini Bros. carries pastieria, as well as sweet golden and braided Easter bread loaves reminiscent of challah.
In Greece, tsoureki starts appearing as Lent winds down. The braided bread with a subtly sweet flavor is usually baked around hard-boiled and dyed eggs - red to symbolize the blood of Christ. The bread has an airy texture, like cotton candy when pulled apart, and a lightly crispy, sesame seed-studded crust. Orange zest and mahlab or mahlepi, the spice derived from cherry pits, give the loaf a distinct floral-nutty quality. Mahlab can be found (usually sold whole) at Penzeys Spices or at Middle Eastern groceries.
"We would keep the bread on the table all day. It's considered a sweet reward for fasting during Lent," says Bobby Saritsoglou, chef of Opa. In Saritsoglou's family, it was common to bake up to 20 or 30 such loaves and give them away to family and friends during the season. "Everyone gave the bread their own little twist, and my family would also share them with our non-Greek neighbors in Upper Darby." He admits that sometimes the accumulated loaves from other visitors might be regifted due to tsoureki overload. Saritsoglou will be giving out tsoureki at the restaurant to customers closer to Greek Easter, which takes place this year on May 1.
Babkas are traditional Easter breads in Eastern Europe. The Polish babka differs from the Jewish version made famous on Seinfeld in that it's not twisted and doesn't have a ribbon of cinnamon or chocolate running through it. Instead, a stiff icing is draped over the top, and dripped down the sides. The sweet yeasted dough, similar to a kugelhopf or pannetone, requires some elbow grease to knead it into the right texture before it's arranged in a Bundt or tube pan. Babkas appear with all manner of flavoring, such as plain or chocolate, or stuffed with rum-soaked raisins, almond paste or poppy seeds. Some babkas get an extra rum bath at the end.
In lieu of a doting grandmother to make them, babkas are relatively easy to come by at area German bakeries, including Weinrich (Newtown Square), Haegele's, and Rilling's (Warminster). Alongside lamb-, ham-, and bunny-shaped cakes, Rilling's also makes hefekranz, another airy yeast bread with fruit and raisins, which gets a special upgrade close to Easter. "We sell the same bread the rest of the year, but it's usually long and braided," says Diane Volz Tino, the bakery's vice president. "This time of year, it's molded into a nest with bunnies and eggs."