Easter morning wouldn't be complete for many without a golden braided loaf of Easter bread on the table.
The rich egg bread is steeped in the culinary and religious traditions of various ethnic groups, each of which makes a unique version of this sweet bread.
Italian recipes call for flavoring the loaves with anise or orange peel, while Greeks use two special spices native to their Mediterranean homeland for flavoring. Slovaks, Polish, Ukrainians and other Eastern European groups let vanilla and butter provide the flavoring for the raisin-studded bread they call paska.
"Paska is a sweet yeast bread, rich in eggs and butter, which is symbolic of Christ himself, who is our true bread," said Nickie Dornack of Akron, who bakes for her family and for her church family at St. Michael's Byzantine Catholic Church on Crouse Street in Akron, Ohio.
Dornack follows a recipe she describes as Slovak for Easter bread that gets braided and then twisted into a wreath shape. Her recipe calls for two cups of golden raisins in the bread, which sometimes is left in unbraided round loaves.
"We always put a little cross of dough on top," she said, noting that the braided shape also represents the crown of thorns placed on the head of Jesus at his crucifixion.
It's not surprising that an egg bread is used to celebrate Easter. For Christians, the egg represents new life, and Christ's rising to new life, which is commemorated at Easter.
Greek immigrant Vasiliki "Vicki" Filippousis of Akron tucks hard-cooked eggs dyed red inside the braids of Easter bread she bakes, in the Greek Orthodox tradition.
"The red is the blood of Jesus," she said. "The whole egg means Jesus' resurrection."
Filippousis' bread is flavored with two specialty Greek spices: mahlepi and hiotiki mastika.
Mahlepi is the kernel of a wild cherry tree that grows in the Mediterranean region, while hiotiki mastika is the resinous gum of a small evergreen tree native to the island of Chios, Greece. Both spices, which can be found at specialty stores like Western Fruit Basket in Akron, must be ground before they are added to the dough mixture. Filippousis said that if mahlepi isn't available, nutmeg can be substituted.
Filippousis, who leads the Easter bread baking at Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church on Union Street in Akron, also advocates using vanilla sugar, sometimes called vanilla powder, in her bread recipe instead of vanilla extract.
Mike Pallotta, who operates Pallotta's Pastries in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, said traditionally, many Christians gave up sweets for the Lenten season, so Easter bread was sweet for celebrating the end of Lent.
Pallotta bakes Italian Easter bread flavored with traditional anise or the increasingly popular orange flavor. Pallotta said making Easter bread at home is still a tradition with older Italian-Americans, but younger generations prefer to buy it, as making the bread is time-consuming.
As with the Greek recipes, many Italians who make the bread at home will put colored eggs into their braids, and some will ice the bread with a simple white frosting and decorate it with colored sprinkles.
"We do not put the eggs in it when selling it commercially, but traditionally, everybody did put the egg on top," Pallotta said. He said the icing can become messy when the bread is bagged, so he sells his plain.
Pallotta's will sell several hundred loaves of the bread in the weeks leading up to Easter, with orange outselling anise about 2-to-1, he said.
Older customers still prefer the traditional anise, which is sold in a long braid, but younger customers opt for the orange bread, which is made in a round loaf studded with orange peel.
"As generations go on, their tastes change," Pallotta said. "With the orange Easter bread, we always tell our customers it tastes really good toasted with a little bit of butter and a piece of ham on it."
Here are all three recipes for Easter bread.
Greek Easter bread
8 packages (1/4 oz. each) active dry yeast (Red Star brand)
3 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 tsp. vanilla powder
5 to 6 lbs. flour 1 tsp. ground mahlepi or 1 tsp. ground nutmeg
1 tsp. ground hiotiki mastika
2 tsp. salt
2 cups milk
1 lb. butter, softened
1 cup cooking oil such as canola
1 dozen eggs
1 1/2 cups hot water
2 egg whites
Place the sugar and yeast together with 4 to 5 cups of the flour. Add the vanilla powder, spices and salt and mix.
Place the milk and butter in a saucepan and warm over low heat until the butter is almost melted. Add to the flour-yeast mixture. Add the eggs and water.
Place the mixture in the bowl of a stand mixer and mix, using a dough hook attachment. Add the flour and oil alternately. You may not need all 6 pounds of flour. Continue to mix dough until it pulls away from the sides of the bowl and clings in a ball to the dough hook. The dough takes about 20 minutes to make.
Dough can be kneaded by hand, or recipe can be cut in half and made as two batches to accommodate a smaller stand mixer.
Allow dough to rise, covered, until it doubles in size.
Once doubled, punch the dough down and divide it into 9 portions.
Shape each dough ball into three strands to be braided and twisted into a wreath shape. Bread can be baked on baking sheets or in metal pie plates.
Cover braids with plastic wrap and allow them to rise again until almost doubled.
Brush tops with beaten egg whites before placing in oven. Bread can be baked 3 loaves at a time.
Bake at 325 degrees for about 40 minutes. If the bread is getting too dark, cover it with foil and lower the oven temperature to 300 degrees to continue baking.
Makes about 9 loaves of bread, about 1 1/2 pounds each.
--Vasiliki "Vicki" Filippousis, Akron
Italian Easter bread
3 large oranges (see note on substituting anise flavoring)
4 oz. fresh cake yeast
2 1/2 cups water, room temperature
4 lbs. bread flour
1 oz. salt
1 1/4 cups sugar
3 oz. powdered milk (generous 1/3 cup)
3 oz. shortening at room temperature (1/3 cup)
3 oz. butter at room temperature (1/3 cup)
4 large eggs
Egg wash made from 1 beaten egg and 2 tbsp. water
Zest the oranges and set zest aside. Then peel the oranges and discard the white pith. Place oranges in a blender or food processor and puree.
Dissolve the yeast in the warm water.
Mix flour, salt, sugar and powdered milk together in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook.
Add shortening and butter and mix to combine. Add the eggs and mix in.
Add the orange puree and zest, and then add water-yeast mixture.
The dough will be on the softer side.
Continue to mix with the dough hook until the dough comes together and pulls away from the sides of the bowl. If the dough is too wet and isn't coming together, add some flour 1/2 cup at a time.
Turn the dough out onto a board or baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap and allow to rise until it doubles in size, 1 to 2 hours.
Once raised, punch the dough down again, divide it into three 1-pound pieces. Let the divided dough rest on a floured surface for about 15 minutes.
Then divide each piece into three portions, roll the portions into long strands and braid or twist the strands into loaves or wreaths. Or dough can simply be left in round balls.
Place shaped dough on baking sheets.
Cover loaves with a towel and let them rise again until they are almost doubled, about an hour to an hour and a half.
Brush tops with egg wash.
Bake loaves at 375 degrees for about 25 to 30 minutes, or until golden brown.
Makes 3 loaves.
Note: For anise-flavored bread, omit the oranges and increase the water by 1 cup. Then add 1 teaspoon of anise oil or 1 tablespoon of anise extract with the eggs.
--Michael Pallotta, Pallotta's Pastries, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio
2 cups milk
3/4 cup butter
6 to 8 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp. salt
2 1/2 tbsp. instant dry yeast
1 cup sugar
5 eggs, beaten
2 cups golden raisins
1 tsp. vanilla, optional
Egg wash made from 1 beaten egg mixed with 2 tbsp. of water
Warm the milk and butter together for about 3 minutes on high in a microwave.
Mix flour, salt, yeast and sugar together in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. Add in the eggs and vanilla if using. Then add in the milk and butter mixture. Add in the raisins last.
Allow dough to mix until it pulls away from the side of the bowl. It will be a soft dough.
Place dough in a large, oiled mixing bowl. Cover with a towel and leave in a warm spot to rise until doubled in size.
Once raised, punch dough down and divide into 3 balls.
Each ball can be divided into three strands and braided, then twisted into a wreath shape. Or loaves can be left plain. Reserve a small amount of dough to shape into a cross and top each loaf with a cross.
Place loaves in round bread pans or cake pans or on flat baking sheets.
Allow to rise a second time until the loaves nearly double again, about an hour.
Brush loaves with egg wash.
Bake at 350 degrees for 35 to 40 minutes.
To test for doneness, stick a sharp knife in the middle of each loaf. If the knife comes out sticky, the bread needs to bake longer.
Makes 3 loaves.
--Nickie Dornack, Akron, Ohio.