(Photo credit to The Italian Dish Blog)
As a child, Easter was all about the sugary stuff. Cadbury Creme Eggs with gooey fondant fillings, Mini Eggs with their crunchy shells, and colorful plastic eggs hand-filled with all sorts of candy. It was spring’s version of Halloween—our one chance to gorge freely on all the treats we longed for. Sure, we also went to church a couple of times around then, but the eggs and the sermons seemed to have nothing to do with one another. Easter seemed all about the arrival of spring, with its pastel colors and fuzzy baby animal motifs. As it turns out, it is that, but also so much more.
Here’s an overview of Easter, in case you (like me) were unclear. The lead-up to the Christian celebration of Easter begins forty days beforehand, at the start of Lent—a fasting period, done in remembrance of Jesus’ sacrificial forty days of fasting in the desert. During Lent, devout Christians historically abstained from animal products, including milk, butter, and eggs, and additionally often sugar and honey. Lent ends with a series of significant holy days-- Maundy Thursday (The Last Supper), Good Friday (the day of Jesus’ crucifixion) and finally, Easter Sunday (when his tomb was found empty and he resurrected).
While Easter is most widely known as a Christian holiday, embedded in it are older customs that focus on celebrating the arrival of spring. The name Easter comes from Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon goodness of fertility and spring, who, not surprisingly was associated with rabbits and eggs. And, the date of Easter changes each year because it is determined by phases of the moon-- it’s always the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox in the Northern Hemisphere. Ancient people used this time to celebrate birth and rebirth in general.
The traditional foods of Easter are still replete with symbolism of both springtime and Christian events, and rich in those ingredients that one can finally indulge in again after Lent. Baking reigns supreme. Breads, pastries and cookies are often round or ring-shaped (to represent Christ’s crown of thorns, and the rebirth and resurrection associated with the circle shape), or braided (with the three strands evoking the Holy Trinity). Eggs play a central role, added to dough in especially high quantities, and as finishing decoration, where they often appear nestled on top and dyed red to symbolize the blood of Christ. Notable breads like this include the Armenian choreg (flavored with finely ground cherry pits) and the Greek tsoureki (flavored with both the cherry pits and also piney, aromatic mastic).
This is only the beginning. As one Greek grandmother told me, “Easter is the time when you make all of your best pastries.” In the Greek kitchen alone, koulourakia (ring shaped butter cookies with sesame seeds) and kourabiedes (made with almond paste and covered in powdered sugar) always appear, as does galaktoboureko, a phyllo custard pie drenched in honey and lemon. It’s the time of year when grandmothers around the Christian world pull out their rolling pins and labor over their most time intensive, complicated pastries: in Eastern Europe, chocolate and vanilla glazed babkas, tall kulichs with icing and sprinkles, cozonacs, and pincas appear on tables; in England and the Commonwealth countries hot cross buns are made on Good Friday, followed by Easter biscuits and Simnel cake; in Cyprus, flaouna, a sweet cheese and raisin filled pastry; in the Middle East, ma’amouls-- date and nut filled shortbread; in Portugal, cinnamon flecked folar; and finally, in Italy, Colomba di Pasqua (a Pannetone-style cake, in the shape of a dove), Pastiera Napoletana (ricotta tart with orange flower water) and cudduri—doughy Sicilian cookies, made into the shape of birds or baskets, holding a hard boiled egg, and finished with an abundance of multicolored sprinkles. I’ll be making those this year!
Have a lovely Easter!
The recipe for Italian Easter Bread (shown in the image above), can be found at The Italian Dish Blog.