It's Time for Easter Breads, Too

By McKay, Gretchen | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), March 21, 2013 | Go to article overview

It's Time for Easter Breads, Too


McKay, Gretchen, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


A day of reverence and celebration, Easter brings with it a number of foods that reflect the rich culinary traditions of many world cultures and cuisines.

My favorite thing to eat during the spring holiday -- if you don't count those delicious Italian chocolate eggs sold at Pennsylvania Macaroni in the Strip District -- are the many sweet, rich Easter breads that show up in local bakeries or are sold to raise money for church groups during the last days of Lent. Talk about life's simple pleasures: A toaster, a little butter, a touch of honey or jam, and I'm in breakfast heaven.

They're all delicious, in my opinion, from paska, a beautiful braided Eastern European Easter yeast bread, to the candied fruit- studded, anise-flavored sweet bread Italians know as pane di Pasqua. And don't forget about German streudel!

This year for the first time, I've also sampled a fragrant Greek bread called tsoureki, which gets its distinctive flavor from mastic, a rare and expensive resin grown on the Greek isle of Chios. As pretty as it is tasty, this bread has tucked into its braided folds a red-dyed, hard-boiled egg that symbolizes the blood of Christ. (See sidebar.)

But I'm probably the biggest sucker for the Easter bread of my youth: the humble hot cross bun, those sweet spiced individual rolls that come decorated with a cross on top made of thick white icing.

We all know these yeast buns taste great. What surprises (at least this non-baker) is that they're also surprisingly easy to make, especially if you have a KitchenAid mixer to do the kneading. Also, the ingredient list won't send you running in a million different directions. Though recipes for hot cross buns vary, they're always rich with eggs, butter and everyday spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice -- ingredients that in the old days were expensive and hard to find (and therefore reserved for special occasions) but today are kitchen staples. Most also include currants and/or raisins and chopped candied citrus peel.

The custom of eating hot cross buns is thought to have pagan origins: the ancient Greeks and Egyptians ate similar types of cakes in honor of their gods, and so did the Anglo-Saxons in honor of Eostre, their goddess of light and spring. The buns we know today originated in England in 1361, when a monk at Saint Alban's Abbey named Father Thomas Rockcliffe distributed them to the poor. They became so enormously popular in England in the 18th and 19th centuries, that the one-a-penny, two-a-penny buns ended up in a Mother Goose nursery rhyme.

Baked throughout the Lenten season, hot cross buns originally were made for Good Friday only, which led to near riots on more than one Good Friday morning in the early days. Considered blessed, they were thought to ward off sickness and danger, as well as protect your house from fire.

Today, the only danger seems in eating too many of them, a definite possibility if you follow the easy recipe below.

HOT CROSS BUNS

PG Tested

You can find candied citrus peel at Pennsylvania Macaroni in the Strip District.

For buns

3/4 cup warmed milk, divided

1/4 cup plus 1 teaspoon superfine sugar, divided

1 pack (. …

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