One of the most obvious customs shows up in the practice of bread making, with every country producing a special, traditional bread. From British hot cross buns and Russian kulich to Polish babka and Portuguese sweet bread — Easter wouldn’t be Easter without the native favorites on the tables. Around the world, bakery shelves and food stalls are filled with beautiful displays of these local, seasonal treats. Cooks work hard to prepare “tried and true” family recipes to share with family and friends.
Two of my favorite memories of past Easters include hot cross buns and Portuguese Easter bread. During my bakery days, hot cross buns were the favorite Holy Week item. We pulled many a steaming tray of these fluffy, fragrant rolls from the oven in the days leading up to Easter. These spicy buns are strewn with raisins and topped with icing crosses.
The cross, of course, represents Jesus’ crucifixion, and the nutmeg and cinnamon represent the anointing spices that were used at the tomb. These doughy delights are surrounded by all kinds of legends and supposedly date back as far as the 12th century when an energetic monk baked them for the poor. My guess is that they didn’t become a true “British thing” until the 16th century when Queen Elizabeth I decreed that these mysterious buns could only be eaten on Good Friday and special holidays.
It was also rumored that the icing cross on the top warded off evil spirits and kept sailors safe on long voyages. Mother Goose even talked about them in her nursery rhyme: “One a penny, two a penny, hot cross buns!” In other words, these celebrated buns have a history!
Portuguese Easter bread or Folar de Pascoa is the Easter version of the traditional Portuguese sweet bread. It was first introduced in Portugal as a pagan bread, the egg in the middle signifying rebirth and new life. Later, the bread was adopted by Christians and continues today as an Easter tradition.
I first experienced this tasty sweet bread while living in Boston. As Easter approached, I began to notice bakery shelves brimming with these round loaves with colorful Easter eggs peeking out of the top. Wonderfully light and airy, this bread has a subtle sweet taste. It is delicious fresh with butter, and leftovers make outstanding toast.
I thought that I would share some favorite renditions of these two special “Easter bread” memories from two of my baker friends. And of course, I have to throw in one of my favorite carrot muffin recipes just so the bunny won’t feel left out.
Hot Cross Buns
Francine Ivery is currently the coordinator of Child Nutrition Programs for Washington County Virginia Schools. She has worn many hats within the food service industry for over 35 years, but her true loves are baking and teaching others to bake. She is good at it, and this may come from handling Job Corps culinary programs as well as teaching at the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center. Her hot cross buns are fondly remembered from her days at The Abingdon General Store, and I still hear people reminiscing about them. The following is one of her favorite hot cross buns recipes from Nastasha’s Kitchen:
Makes 1 dozen
1/2 cup raisins plus 1 cup of boiling hot water
3/4 cup warm milk whole milk, divided into 1/2 cup and 1/4 cup
1/2 cup plus 1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 envelope active dry yeast
2 large eggs, beaten well
8 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (don’t sift)
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 egg, beaten with teaspoon water for egg wash
1/2 powdered sugar mixed with 2 1/2 teaspoon milk for glaze
In a small bowl, combine 1/2 cup raisins with 1 cup boiling hot water. Let it sit 10 minutes and drain well. Set aside.
In a measuring cup, combine 1/4 cup very warm milk with 1/2 teaspoon sugar and sprinkle 3/4 tablesspoon yeast over the top. Stir and let sit at room temp until doubled in size, about 10 minutes.
In a large mixing bowl, combine 1/2 cup warm milk with 1/2 cup sugar, 4 tablespoons softened butter and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Stir until butter is melted. Add 2 well-beaten eggs and yeast mixture that has been sitting. Srir in cinnamon and nutmeg.
Using the dough hook mix in 3 1/2 cups flour, 1 cup at a time until soft dough forms. Knead 8-12 minutes or until smooth and elastic. It will stick a little to the bowl, but not your hands.
Add drained raisins and transfer dough to a large greased bowl, turning to bring the buttered side of dough up. Cover with a tea towel and let rise in warm room 1 1/2 hours or until doubled in size.
Preheat oven to 375.
Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and cut in half and keep cutting until you have 12 equal-size pieces. Roll into balls and transfer to greased 9x13 baking pan. Cover with towel and let them sit for 30 minutes until puffy.
Generously brush tops of rolls with egg wash and bake 15-17 minutes until tops are golden brown. Remove from oven and cool in pan.
When buns are cool, stir together the 1/2 cup powdered sugar and about 2 1/2 teaspoons milk. Add more powdered sugar to thicken if needed. Put glaze into ziplock bag, cut off the tip of one corner, and pipe a cross shape over each bun.
Portuguese Easter Bread
Kelli Mehl and her family are a staple in our neck of the woods! We could not get by without their delicious baked goods, which are found weekly at our farmers markets and fairs. A true family-run business in Mendota, Virginia, Mehl’s Bakery is well-known for sourdough and multigrain breads as well as an array of mouthwatering sweets and savory snacks. So, of course, Kelli will provide Portuguese Easter bread with her own twist as Holy Week approaches. The Mehls’ Easter bread is often made in braids with beautiful colored eggs on top, or you can order small individual loaves ([email protected]).
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup scalded milk
2 yeast cakes (2 packages dry yeast) dissolved in 1/4 cup warm water (sprinkle a little of the sugar and let stand for a few minutes)
1/2 cup butter
3 large eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon lemon extract
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg 1/4 teaspoon anise (optional, but traditional)
5 cups flour
You can add raisins, nuts, dried apricots, cherries, etc., for a different taste.
Put the scalded milk in a large bowl and dissolve the butter and sugar. Add the yeast and the beaten eggs. Mix well. Add the flavoring, salt, sugar, spice and flour; mix well. Knead 15 to 20 minutes on a floured board. (The more you knead, the smoother the dough.) The dough will be very soft. Add the flour as you knead. Place the dough in a buttered bowl and let rise until doubled (about 2 hours). Punch down and divide into two round loaves.
Place in two greased Pyrex pie plates. On top of the loaves, carefully press 1 already dyed (with food coloring) raw egg in their shells into the dough. Pinch 2 strips of dough across the egg in shape of cross to hold egg in place. Let rise until double. Brush with milk and sprinkle with a little sugar. Bake in a 350 degree oven for 40 to 45 minutes. Watch carefully — do not over bake. The eggs can be eaten and will taste like hard-boiled eggs.
(Note: This is a good dough to experiment with and can easily be braided if you want to change the shape.
Hard-boiled colored eggs can also be used in the bread. Sometimes they cracked a bit while baking but usually look fine.)
Glorious Morning Muffins
I discovered this muffin recipe years ago and after tweaking it a bit, this carroty concoction has become a go-to recipe ever since — especially during busy weekends. My family has grown to expect it on Easter morning. It is easy, delicious and pretty darn healthy!
2 cups flour (you can do 1 cup whole wheat and 1 cup unbleached)
1 1/4 cups sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup of vegetable oil
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 cups grated carrots
1 medium tart apple, peeled and grated.
1/2 cup each coconut, raisins and walnuts
In large bowl, combine dry ingredients. In another bowl, beat eggs, oil and vanilla. Stir into dry ingredients, just until moist, then fold in fruit and nuts.
Fill liners 3/4 full. Sprinkle top with a bit of coconut if you wish.
Bake 350 degrees for 20-25 minutes
Jennifer King Ferreira grew up in Kingsport, where she received her first cooking experiences from her grandmother, Genevieve Shivell. She is the past owner of the Abingdon General Store and Plum Alley Eatery, a gourmet store and restaurant in Abingdon, Va., and serves as marketing and public relations specialist for the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center and the Cooking Along the Crooked Road Culinary Program.