Easter breads

For many, Easter morning wouldn't be complete without a golden braided loaf of sweet bread on the table. (Ed Suba Jr./Akron Beacon Journal/MCT)

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."