When eggs start appearing in their coats of many colors, and children begin parading home from school with their dainty, grass-filled baskets, we don't have to look at our calendars to know that it's Easter once again. For eggs are a symbol of Easter; it wouldn't feel quite like Easter if there weren't any brightly colored eggs about it.
The association of Easter with eggs is one we take for granted nowadays, but the connection has intrigued many folklorists. What is it about the egg that makes it such an ideal symbol of this particular holiday?
Imagine for a moment the utter amazement of Stone Age man when he first saw a little chick peep out of a just-hatched egg. After observing life emerge from an apparently inanimate object, primitive people must have imputed the egg with magical powers. As a result, countless creation myths evolved which described how the universe emerged from an enormous cosmic egg.
Because of its life-giving properties, the egg naturally became a symbol of continuing life. The peoples of ancient Egypt, China, Greece and Persia incorporated eggs into their spring and harvest festivals, both celebrations of the renewed life evident in nature at those times. And, as recently as 100 years ago, Estonians ate eggs while plowing, and Scots placed an egg at the bottom of their sowing basket to ensure a good harvest.
The egg's power to bring forth new life made it a natural symbol of Christ's resurrection, and in the early years of Christianity, parishioners were invited to take eggs to church to be blessed during the Easter season. These special eggs were then exchanged as gifts. In Poland, the eggs were traditionally painted red, blue and green, a reminder of the legend that Mary decorated eggs with these colors to amuse the baby Jesus.
An early tradition
But the tradition of coloring eggs began long before the Christian era. Because the life that emerged from the egg was always such a mystery to early man, he was never certain whether a good or an evil force would be released when the egg cracked open. It was in an attempt to control the outcome that man began to say charms over eggs, paint signs and symbols with positive connotations on them or dye them bright red -- a color he associated with good luck.
Eggs, which are so vital to the celebration of Easter, enrich not only the meaning of the holiday, but much of the festive fare traditionally served on that day. Just as egg-decorating techniques vary from country to country, so do recipes for special Easter breads and cakes.
In parts of Germany, for example, Easter bread men have eggs for faces or bellies, while in Italy special "corona di nove," circular pastries, are baked with Easter eggs embedded on top. In Austria, young children are given nest-shaped cakes filled with eggs as Easter gifts, and in Portugal the holiday is heralded with "folares," heart-shaped pastries with eggs baked into the dough.
In her study, "An Egg at Easter," author Venetia Newall suggests that perhaps the custom of baking eggs in pastry and bread dates as far back as the Middle Ages, when bread as well as eggs were presented to the feudal lord as a form of tithe.
Other folklorists believe that the preparation of these special pastries dates all the way back to the pagan belief that by making such offerings, the donor and his loved ones were assured prosperity in the coming year.
You might like to ponder these possibilities while preparing some of the following dramatic and delicious traditional Easter breads and cakes.
Light and yeasty
This light and egg-rich yeast cake is traditionally served at the Easter Sunday feast in Czechoslovakia. It has been adapted from "Feast-Day Cakes From Many Lands," by Dorothy Spicer (Holt, Rinehart and Winston; 1960.)
Makes 10 to 12 servings
1 envelope active dry yeast
1/2 cup lukewarm water
1 tablespoon plus 1/2 cup sugar
3 cups sifted flour
1/2 cup butter, at room temperature
4 egg yolks, well-beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla
3/4 teaspoon salt
4 egg whites, stiffly beaten
1 cup blanched almonds, coarsely chopped
Dissolve yeast in warm water. Stir in 1 tablespoon sugar and set aside 15 minutes. Stir in 1 cup flour and let rise until spongy and light, about 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, cream butter and remaining 1/2 cup sugar. Beat in egg yolks and vanilla. Sift together remaining 2 cups flour and salt and beat into butter-sugar mixture. Blend in yeast mixture thoroughly. Fold in stiffly beaten egg whites and 3/4 cup chopped almonds.
Spoon mixture into well-greased and floured 9-inch tube pan. Sprinkle top with remaining 1/4 cup chopped almonds. Cover and let rise in warm place until doubled, about 2 hours. Bake at 350 degrees until top is rich golden brown and wood pick inserted in center comes out clean, 30 to 35 minutes. Cool in pan on wire rack. Remove from pan and cool completely.
Also known as "tsoureki," this beautiful bread is traditionally braided into a wreath (although the shape may vary from village to village) and crowned with a few, bright, red-dyed eggs. Although the three risings required necessitate your being in or about the kitchen for the better part of the day, the sight of the finished product rewards the effort. Do not be alarmed by the length of the recipe; the bread is actually quite easy to make. This recipe has been adapted from "Cooking the Greek Way," by Anne Theoharous (London; Methune; 1982.)
(Greek Easter Bread)
1 scant tablespoon whole cloves
3 large bay leaves
1 large cinnamon stick
3/4 cup water
3 envelopes active dry yeast, at room temperature
1/2 tablespoon sugar
1/2 cup warm water
1/2 cup milk
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
4 ounces butter, melted
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
6 cups flour (unsifted)
1 tablespoon oil, optional
4 red-dyed hard-cooked eggs
2 egg yolks, at room temperature
3 tablespoons warm milk
To prepare spiced liquid, combine cloves, bay leaves, cinnamon and water in small pan. Bring to boil. Reduce heat. Simmer gently, covered, 30 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.
To prepare yeast, sprinkle yeast into medium, warmed bowl. Sprinkle with sugar and dribble warm water on top. Cover bowl with warm plate and set aside.
To prepare dough, scald milk and set aside. Beat eggs in small bowl exactly 6 minutes at medium speed (to make them thick and creamy rather than frothy). Increase to high speed and add sugar very slowly, occasionally scraping down sides of bowl. Slowly add melted butter. Beat another 4 minutes.
Pour mixture into very large mixing bowl. Add lukewarm milk, salt and vanilla and stir with spoon. Strain spice liquid and measure 1/2 cup into egg mixture, stirring to blend. Stir in yeast mixture.
Start adding flour, 1 cup at a time, stirring with large wooden spoon or use dough hook of electric mixer until you have blended in 4 cups flour. (At this point, dough should be spongy and springy, but still sticking to sides of bowl.)
Continue to add flour, but much more slowly. Knead dough by punching it repeatedly and sprinkling remaining flour slowly underneath dough each time you turn it until dough leaves sides of bowl.
When that happens, add no more flour and work dough with dough hook 5 minutes, or if kneading by hand, place dough on lightly floured board and use a bit of oil on hands from time to time to prevent sticking and knead 15 minutes after adding last bit of flour.
Set bowl in warm place, away from drafts. Cover with large clean cloth and wrap several blankets or towels loosely around bowl. Allow dough to rise until doubled, about 3 hours. Punch down and knead dough vigorously in bowl 1 minute. Cover again and allow to rise until doubled in bulk, about 2 hours.
Punch down dough on floured board. Divide in half. Cut each half into 3 equal, orange-sized portions. Oil hands and shape each piece into rope about 16 inches long. Press 3 ropes together at 1 end and then braid them, pulling dough gently to lengthen roll as you proceed. (Dough is quite elastic at this point and will have tendency to shrink.)
Finish by pressing ends together. Place braid into 10-inch foil-lined cake pan to form a circle.
Press 1 red egg where braided ends meet and a second egg opposite, between joints of dough. Repeat process with remaining 3 ropes of dough. Cover pans with clean towels and place in warm area to rise 1 1/2 hours.
To prepare glaze, beat egg yolks and milk with fork. Brush tops of bread with glaze, but do not glaze eggs. Sprinkle with sesame seeds. Bake at 350 degrees until golden brown or until bottom of loaves, when tapped, sound hollow, about 30 minutes. Cool on rack in pans 30 minutes. Remove from pans. Allow to cool at least 6 hours before cutting.
NOTE: To freeze, completely cool loaves and wrap airtight in plastic bags. To serve, heat frozen bread at 325 degrees until completely thawed.
Sweet, creamy layers
The traditional finale to the festive Easter meal in Sicily is cassata, an elaborate cake made by alternating layers of sponge cake with a rich mixture of sweetened ricotta cheese dotted with candied fruit and chocolate. It is a dessert to be remembered. This version has been adapted from "The Art of Sicilian Cooking," by Anna Muffoletto (Gramercy; 1971.)
Makes 10 to 12 servings
5 egg whites
1 cup sugar
5 egg yolks, slightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup sifted flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 pounds ricotta cheese
3 tablespoons powdered sugar
1 cup mixed candied fruit, finely chopped
4 ounces good-quality bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1/2 cup brandy, maraschino liqueur or rum
1 cup whipping cream, whipped
3 tablespoons powdered sugar
1 ounce bittersweet chocolate
1/2 cup maraschino cherries
1/3 cup pistachio nuts
To prepare cake, beat egg whites in large bowl until soft peaks form. Sprinkle salt and sugar gradually over whites and beat until stiff peaks form. Fold in egg yolks and vanilla and blend well.
Sift together flour and baking powder. Gradually sprinkle over egg mixture, folding in well after each addition. Pour batter into greased 9-by-5-inch loaf pan. Bake at 375 degrees until cake springs back to the touch and wood pick inserted in center comes out clean, about 35 minutes. Cool on rack in pan 5 minutes. Unmold. Cool completely.
To prepare filling, combine ricotta cheese, powdered sugar, candied fruit, chocolate and brandy, mixing well. Cover and refrigerate until needed.
To assemble, grease sides of 3 1/2 - to 4-quart straight-sided bowl. Line bottom with piece of foil. Cut cake with serrated knife into 1/2 -inch slices. Line bottom and sides with 1 layer of slices. Spread about 1 1/2 cups filling on top. Arrange 2 more slices of cake on top. Continue to layer in this way 2 more times, ending with remaining 3 to 4 slices on top. Cover and refrigerate 6 hours or overnight. When ready to assemble, loosen sides with knife and invert onto serving plate. Remove foil.
To prepare frosting, combine whipped cream and powdered sugar. Spread on top and sides of cake. Shave chocolate on top. Garnish with cherries and nuts.