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Rising to the occasion

Easter breads are loaded with tradition, symbolism and flavor

By Jennifer Day, Special to Tribune Newspapers

April 20, 2011

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In Portland, Ore., Patricia DiPrima will bake bread in the shape of a dove and top it with crushed amaretti cookies. The traditional Italian Easter bread known as colomba pasquale will be among the special holiday offerings at DiPrima Dolci Italian Bakery & Cafe.

Across the country, at Silver Star Bakery in Providence, R.I., Eduarda Ferreira will nestle plain white eggs into her Portuguese sweet bread dough, continuing a tradition she grew up with in the Azores.

And in Greenville, Ill., about an hour east of St. Louis, Lydia Shalanko will sell kulich for her first Easter in business as Piety Hill Bakery. The bread, a Russian specialty, bakes in a tall can, rising dramatically high.

Easter breads may be braided into wreaths or baked into a towering dome. They may be light and airy like brioche or dense and sweet like coffeecake. They may overflow with bits of candied fruit, decorated with whole eggs or left stoically plain. But however they are made, meaning is kneaded into every crumb.

"Easter breads are a continuation of the same tradition that for millions of years breads have been used: to tell a story," said Peter Reinhart, a baking instructor at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, N.C., and author of "Artisan Breads Every Day."

"They give another opportunity to deepen the sense of connectedness to the reason why we're celebrating the holiday in the first place."

Reinhart offered a brief guide to the symbolism of Easter bread. First, they are always leavened: The rising of the dough reflects the story of Christ rising from his tomb.

Usually, they are loaded with eggs, which symbolize rebirth and lend the dough a golden hue — the color associated with resurrection. Golden fruit, such as apricots and raisins, may be added to signify abundance.

Nuts and seeds — another powerful religious reference to rebirth — may be used as garnishes. Loaves braided from three strands evoke the Holy Trinity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

We asked Reinhart to recommend an Easter bread that could be made three ways, and he suggested a recipe based on babka, a dense, cakey, Eastern European bread.

Whether you prefer it perfumed with almonds, marbled with apricots or left plain to let the eggy bread shine on its own, it will taste like spring: a hint of the sweet abundance of seasons to come.

Easter bread

Note: Adapted from "Artisan Breads Every Day," by Peter Reinhart. We had best results when letting the shaped dough rise overnight.

Prep: 30 minutes
Rise: Overnight
Bake: 40 minutes
Makes: 12 slices

Ingredients:
2 tablespoons instant yeast
3/4 cup lukewarm milk (about 95 degrees)
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
4 egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 1/3 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt

Egg wash:
egg beaten with
1 tablespoon water

1. Whisk the yeast into the milk in a bowl until dissolved. Set aside. Cream the butter and sugar in a large bowl with a mixer until smooth, about 2 minutes. Place egg yolks in a small bowl; add the vanilla. Whisk lightly to break up the yolks. Add the yolks to the sugar mixture in four portions, mixing until each is incorporated before adding the next.

2. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Mix on medium high speed until fluffy, 2 minutes. Add the flour, salt and milk mixture. Mix at low speed to make a soft, tacky dough, 2-3 minutes. (If making the apricot version, sprinkle in 1/2 cup chopped dried apricots and 1/4 cup golden raisins during last minute of mixing.)

3. Transfer the dough to a floured work surface; knead by hand, adding more flour as needed to make the dough pliable, 2 minutes. The dough should be golden, soft and supple. Form into a ball; place in a clean, lightly oiled bowl. Cover bowl tightly with plastic wrap; leave at room temperature, 2 1/2 hours, or place in the refrigerator overnight to roll it out the next day.

4. Roll dough into a 15-inch square on a lightly floured surface, about 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick. As you roll, frequently lift the dough with a scraper and dust surface with more flour to prevent sticking. (If adding fillings, left, do so now.)

5. Roll the dough like a jellyroll; place seam side down. Rock back and forth to extend length to 18-24 inches long. Coil into a circular snail shape; stand the coil on end, perpendicular to counter. Press into a loaf shape. Place in a greased loaf pan, domed side up. Cover loosely with plastic wrap; let rise at room temperature, 1 to 1 1/2 hours, or refrigerate overnight.

6. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Poke a few holes in the top of the dough with a toothpick to eliminate air pockets. Brush top with the egg wash. Bake 20 to 25 minutes. Rotate pan; bake until the top is a rich, dark brown, 20-25 minutes.

Nutrition information:
Per serving: 238 calories, 32% of calories from fat, 8 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 104 mg cholesterol, 34 g carbohydrates, 6 g protein, 211 mg sodium, 1 g fiber.

Fillings
Almond: Spread with 1 package almond paste. Sprinkle with ½ cup slivered toasted almonds.
Apricot: Spread with 3/4 cup apricot jam.