The Tradition of Easter Bread
The practice of creating special breads to celebrate holidays, harvests, religious rites, and other occasions worldwide dates back thousands of years. If you look at the key ingredients of these holiday breads, you’ll see certain themes popping up, whether they originate in Russia, England, France, Greece, or Italy: many are enriched breads, made with considerable fat and sugar. They’re typically made with fine white wheat flour—throughout most of history, white flour was both more expensive and prized—and they often feature dried fruits, such as raisins or candied citrus. They also often contain warm spices like cinnamon or cardamom. Some have a touch of liqueur added to them. Some are baked with little surprises inside.
Many holiday breads are meant to celebrate the end of a fast, to symbolize an offering, or to invite good luck for the year ahead. In other contexts, breads aren’t symbolic as much as traditional, baked as a reminder of family and togetherness and celebration.
Easter and Good Friday inspire a particularly rich array of festive breads to honor the occasion. Colomba di Pasqua originated somewhere in the Lombardy region of Italy. It’s an enriched bread with a sugar-nut syrup coating served on Easter. The loaves are shaped like a dove to symbolize peace. In Russia, many families eat kulich on Easter. It’s a tall, narrow, enriched bread made with candied citrus peel, almonds, and saffron. The top is traditionally inscribed with symbols meaning “Christ is risen.” Tsoureki is a Greek Easter bread that’s often braided and sprinkled with nuts. It’s served with Easter eggs dyed red to symbolize the blood of Christ. Croatians celebrate Easter with a cake-like sweet bread called pinca or sirnica that is enriched with butter and eggs. The loaf can be shaped into a round and decorated with a cross or braided and formed into a wreath.
In Great Britain, sweet currant-filled buns decorated with a cross—and aptly named hot cross buns—are traditionally prepared for Good Friday. The custom dates back at least to the Middle Ages, and some still insist that baking hot cross buns on Good Friday will protect a home from all sorts of calamities during the upcoming year, including fire and bad luck. During the 1500s, when a law prohibited the sale of hot cross buns except on Good Friday, Christmas, and for burials, people made hot cross buns at home to get by.
Portuguese Sweet Bread has traveled the globe; it has taken hold where larger populations of Portuguese immigrants settled, including Hawaii and New England. Called folar in Portuguese, and it is traditionally made during Easter. There is a savory variation called folar de Chaves, which is stuffed with ham, linguiça, and salpicão.
These loaves are just a sample of some of the rich bread traditions associated with Easter. When it comes to the holidays, bread has played an important role in holiday meals across many different cultures and traditions. Modernist Bread includes a number of recipes for different traditional holiday breads, including Colomba di Pasqua as well as Portuguese Sweet Bread.