T. Susan Chang is a New England-based freelance writer and a Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellow. She also is the Boston Globe's regular cookbook reviewer, and her articles on cooking, gardening and nutrition appear in a variety of national and regional publications. You can find more information at her Web site, tsusanchang.com.
Eggs — white, brown, dyed, painted and chocolate — are everywhere this time of year. You might think this is because their unique yet universal form, like the number zero, reminds us that nature is hitting the "reset" button for the new year. Or maybe you think that people get a hankering for protein along with spring fever.
But it's really all about the hens. Their natural cycle leads to a production slowdown — or complete stop, in some cases — throughout the dark, cold winter.
When the spring equinox rolls around, however, the longer hours of daylight send a message to the hen's tiny brain ("Warmer temperatures, fresh food supply, time to breed"), and the eggs come back.
That's where what should really just be the hen's private business collides with human spiritual practice. Jews, pagans and every sort of Christian make much of the egg in their sacred rites of spring. Easter is the holiest day in the liturgical calendar, but it coincides with a host of pagan rites and debauchery.
The egg — symbol of rebirth and purity, but also of fertility and sex — makes for an apt metaphor for both the sacred and the profane.
Whatever the case, practical bakers got creative with the ovarian windfall, and lots of eggs ended up in bread. Some bakers, such as the Eastern Orthodox Christians, boiled and dyed eggs and buried them in ornate crown- or braid-shaped breads. Germans and Austrians, among others, made animal bread shapes: doves, hares, bears or foxes, with eggs for heads.
But by far the tastiest Easter-season breads do without metaphor and simply add the eggs to the dough, a bit of culinary cleverness that moistens and elasticizes the gluten structure of the bread, letting it rise high and mighty without drying out.
As a result, the centuries have bequeathed us an international carb-o-copia of leavened egg breads: Greek tsoureki, Eastern European babka, Russian kulich, English hot cross buns. And many of the braided Easter breads of Eastern Europe strongly resemble challah, the beloved Jewish egg bread eaten at Sabbaths yearlong — but not at Passover, when leavened breads are off the menu.
An eggy challah was the first yeast bread I ever made. As I kneaded the sweet, milky dough, I reveled in its resilient texture — its Spandex-like skin stretched tight over a ball so smooth it might have been a great big egg itself. I didn't know then that it was the eggs that made it so satiny and stretchy. I loved rolling out the ropes of dough and weaving them together. I hadn't had so much fun with anything since Play-Doh.
And when I took the great, steaming gilded braid out of the oven, I experienced that peculiar satisfaction usually reserved for crafters of buttercream roses, ice sculptures and a whole world of marzipan figurines: of having made something you can eat that looks like something that you can't.
But this was nothing compared to the egg-headed bread-beasts of sacred Easters past I had learned about. I didn't know, either, about the Paas Haasie (the Dutch Easter Bunny, a baked bread-hare with a whole egg right in the middle). Or the legend of the bird that the goddess Ostara transformed into a hare, and which laid eggs every subsequent spring in her honor.
And when my son tears into a hot cross bun, singing "one a penny, two a penny," he is not thinking of the British school that banned the traditional Good Friday treat last year when Jehovah's Witnesses called them a "pagan symbol of fertility."
Metamorphosis or metaphor? The promiscuous hare or the virtuous, productive hen?
For me, there is nothing ambiguous about the rise heavenward of an Easter egg bread, its crust emitting an odor of sanctity, its golden crumb as rich as manna. Call it what you will, egg bread allows me to believe that Easter is a time when you are not only what you eat, but, miraculously, just a little more.
This recipe is from A Blessing of Bread by Maggie Glezer (Artisan, 2004).
Makes two 10-inch round babkas
For the dough:
1 1/2 cups milk (any type)
2 tablespoons dry yeast
About 5 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 fat cinnamon stick, or 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup granulated sugar
1 1/4 teaspoons table salt
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
3 large egg yolks
10 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 egg for glazing
For the filling:
1 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon sugar (reserved from above)
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 cup raisins, 1 cup chocolate morsels, and/or 1 cup chopped walnuts
Heat the milk in the microwave or in a small heavy pot on the stove just until bubbles form around the edges and the milk steams. Pour the milk into a pitcher or other container and let it cool to 105 degrees to 110 degrees, about the temperature of a comfortable bath. (This can be done in advance and the milk just warmed before making the yeast mixture. This step denatures a component in the milk that attacks the flour's gluten and causes a coarse, depressed texture.)
As soon as the milk is cool enough, whisk together the yeast and 1 1/2 cups of the flour in a large bowl. Whisk in the warm milk until smooth. Let stand uncovered for 10 to 20 minutes, or until it starts to ferment and puff up.
In the meantime, if using the cinnamon stick, pulverize it in a heavy mortar and pestle or a coffee grinder until finely powdered (it will have some tiny chips, which is fine). Mix it or the 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon with the sugar, and put 1 tablespoon of this cinnamon sugar aside to use in the filling.
When the yeast has puffed up, whisk in the cinnamon sugar (minus the 1 tablespoon), the salt, vanilla, and egg yolks until smooth. With your hands or a spoon, stir in the remaining 4 cups flour all at once, along with the softened butter, and mix the dough until it is rough and lumpy but holds together. Scrape the dough out onto the work surface and knead until it is a soft dough. (Soak your mixing bowl in hot water now to clean it and warm it for fermenting the dough.) This dough will be very soft and sticky, but with enough kneading, it will become smooth and shiny.
Place the dough in the warmed clean bowl and cover it with plastic wrap. (Or, the dough can be refrigerated right after kneading, then removed from the refrigerator to finish fermenting up to 24 hours later.) Let the dough rise for 2 to 2 and 1/2 hours, or until doubled in volume and very soft. (If the dough has been refrigerated, fermenting may take up to 1 hour more.)
While the dough is rising, generously butter or oil two 8-inch or 10-inch round cake pans.
Make the filling just before shaping the breads; it firms up very quickly as it cools and will spread best when still warm.
Combine the sugar, the reserved cinnamon sugar and the cocoa in a medium bowl, and stir well to press out any cocoa lumps. Add the melted butter and whisk the filling until smooth.
When the dough is fully risen, turn it out onto a lightly floured work surface and cut it into two equal pieces. If you have enough room to spread out (such as a large kitchen table), you can work more quickly if you follow the steps successively with both halves; otherwise, shape one half at a time to completion, keeping the second one covered.
With a rolling pin, roll one dough piece out 1/2-inch thick. Cut the circle in half. Smear each half of dough up to just 1/2 inch from its edges with one-quarter of the filling mixture. This is easiest to do with your clean hands. Warm the filling gently in the microwave or over a saucepan of boiling water if it is too firm.
Scatter one quarter of the raisins, chocolate chips and/or walnuts over the filling on each piece. Roll up one piece of dough very loosely like a carpet, starting with the rounded edge and ending up at the long straight cut. Seal the seam by pinching the long edge into the roll; use a little water if you need it to help the dough stick to itself.
Starting from the center of the roll, lightly press out the roll to the open ends to force out any air bubbles that may have formed during rolling. Seal the ends of the roll by pinching them together. Check the seals again, then roll the strand under your hands to create a tapered strand with a thicker middle and slender pointed ends. Repeat with the second piece.
To create a twisted teardrop shape, ask a volunteer to hold both ends of a chopstick or other thin stick vertically. Pull the strand around it, using it to anchor the thick center of the strand. Now cross the ends over each other, pulling them tight against the chopstick to create as many twists as possible. When finished, just slide the chopstick out of the top. Repeat with the other strand.
Curve one twist into a C shape and set it in the prepared cake pan. Loosely fit the fat end of the second twist into the concave curve of the first and wind its end around, so the ends of both twists are wrapping in the same direction, like a pinwheel. Repeat with the remaining dough and filling.
Cover the shaped babkas with plastic wrap. (At this point, you can refrigerate the loaves for up to 24 hours.) Let the loaves proof until very soft and expanded — they should be nicely domed over the pans — about 2 1/2 hours (or up to 3 1/2 hours if the loaves have been refrigerated). It is better to slightly overproof at this point.
Meanwhile, 30 minutes before baking, arrange an oven rack in the lower third position and preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Beat the remaining egg with a pinch of salt for glazing the breads.
When the babkas are ready to bake, brush with the egg glaze. Poke them with a toothpick to pop any large air bubbles.
Bake the babkas for 50 to 60 minutes, until they are a dark mahogany color and their tops are firm and bounce back when pressed. After the first 40 minutes of baking, turn the loaves around so that they brown more evenly.
If the babkas are coloring too quickly, cover them with foil. If after 40 minutes they seem too pale, increase the heat to 350 degrees, but do not overbake them or they will be dry.
When the babkas are done, remove them from the oven and let them cool for about 10 minutes in the pans, then tap them out of the pans and let them finish cooling on a rack.
This recipe is adapted from The Professional Pastry Chef by Bo Friberg (Van Nostrand Reinhold 1996).
Makes 18 small buns
For the dough:
4 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 cup warm milk
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/4 cup honey
1 pound bread flour, approximately
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
2 tablespoons soft unsalted butter
1/2 cup dried currants
Finely chopped peel from one lemon
Egg wash, made by combining 1 egg with 1 tablespoon cold water
For the pastry cream
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 cup sugar
Pinch of salt
In the bowl of a mixer, dissolve the yeast in the warm milk. Stir in the salt and the honey.
In another bowl, combine the flour with the spices. Mix into the yeast and milk mixture, using the dough hook at low speed. Alternatively, stir gently with a wooden spoon until fully combined. Incorporate the soft butter.
Knead at medium speed for 8 to 10 minutes, adding additional bread flour if the dough is sticky and tacky rather than smooth and soft. Do not overknead the dough.
Place the dough, covered with plastic, in a warm place and let rise until it is doubled in volume, about 1 hour.
Meanwhile, make the pastry cream.
In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, bring the milk and vanilla to a boil.
Keeping an eye on the milk, mix the cornstarch, sugar and salt in a bowl with a whisk. Add the egg and mix until smooth.
Slowly add about 1/3 of the hot milk to the egg mixture while whisking. Pour the tempered egg mix back into the remaining milk.
Place over medium heat and cook, stirring constantly, until mixture comes to a boil and thickens. Pour the custard in a bowl and cover the surface directly with plastic or parchment. When cool, store in the refrigerator, if making later.
Knead in the currants and lemon peel by hand, kneading until the dough is smooth. Let the dough rest, covered for 10 minutes.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Divide the dough into three equal pieces. Roll the pieces into 6-inch ropes, and then cut each rope into six equal pieces. Form the small pieces into tight round buns. Place approximately 1 1/2 inches apart on sheet pans lined with parchment.
Using a sharp knife or razor blade, cut a cross on top of each bun just deep enough to penetrate the skin. Let the buns rise, covered, until slightly less than doubled in volume.
Brush the buns with egg wash.
Place the pastry cream in a pastry bag fitted with a No. 3 plain tip, or cut a hole in the corner of a ziplock bag for a makeshift pastry bag. Pipe a cross of pastry cream in the opened cut on top of each bun.
Bake for approximately 20 minutes or until golden brown. Let cool slightly.