Traditional Easter Breads

Food, Hometown Cooking, Seasonal, Traditions
on March 23, 2003
Russian Kulich

Easter breads, rich in symbolism and history, have strong traditions around the world. Rebirth, springtime, and crosses are woven into age-old recipes for yeast breads.

Many dearly held traditions still are celebrated, with the highest regard for authenticity. These breads, from Russia, Greece, England, and Italy are some of the most beloved.

Experiment with these recipes and add them to your own family Easter traditions. The recipes start with a basic sweet dough, are excellent with ham, and also are well-suited to egg dishes at brunch.

Basic Sweet Dough

  • 1 cup lukewarm milk (scalded, then cooled)
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons yeast (cake or granules)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup soft butter
  • 4 1/2 cups flour

In a large bowl mix milk, sugar, and salt together. Add yeast. Stir gently until the yeast is dissolved. Stir in eggs, butter, and flour. Knead this mixture in a mixer fitted with a dough hook until it’s soft, smooth, and no longer sticky. Add another 1/2 cup flour if necessary to reach desired texture. Or mix by hand, using a spoon to mix initially, then turn the contents out onto a floured surface and knead with even strokes until smooth.

Place dough into a large bowl that has been well-buttered on all sides. Turn the dough once so the top surface is coated. Place a film of plastic wrap over the top, and allow dough to rest in a warm place until doubled in bulk. When doubled (after about one hour), gently punch the dough back down to its original size. Place the wrap securely over the top, and allow the rising process to repeat. After dough doubles in its second rising, punch it down again.

Use this dough to make the following four recipes.

Russian Kulich

Because this bread is baked in tall cans, it resembles a mosque when finished. This onion-dome shape is symbolic in Russian Orthodoxy. This bread has been served at Russian Easter tables for hundreds of years.

  • Basic sweet dough
  • 1/2 cup golden raisins
  • 1/2 cup dried cherries
  • 1/2 cup toasted, slivered almonds
  • 1/3 cup candied orange peel (optional, but delicious)
  • 1/3 cup finely chopped crystallized ginger
  • 1/3 cup melted butter
  • 1/3 cup orange liqueur or water
  • 2 cups powdered sugar

Make basic sweet dough. After the second rising, knead in raisins, cherries, almonds, orange peel, if desired, and ginger. Knead until fruits and nuts are evenly distributed. Divide this dough in half. Place each half into a well-greased 13-ounce coffee can (or cylindrical pan of equal size). Allow dough to rise until it blooms over the top of the can. It will resemble a large mushroom. Bake these cylinders in a 375-degree oven for 30-40 minutes, or until the tops are well browned. When slightly cooled, carefully remove the kulich from the cans.

For the glaze, add the powdered sugar to the butter and liqueur until well mixed. For a thicker glaze, add up to 1 more cup powdered sugar. Drizzle this evenly over the top of each kulich.

Hot Cross Buns

This ancient English sweet dough recipe yields tasty, currant-laced buns with an icing cross decorating each one. Before the Christian era, these buns were served without a cross, in honor of the Goddess of spring.

  • Basic sweet dough
  • 3/4 cup currants, or raisins
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Make basic sweet dough. After second rising, knead in currants, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Divide this dough into 24 pieces. Roll each gently into a round ball and place on a well-greased baking pan. Allow these dough balls to double in bulk, for about one hour. When they are plump and round, bake them in a 375-degree oven for about 20 minutes. Let cool slightly, and decorate with an icing cross. Serve while warm.

Italian Anise Easter Bread

The three strands of dough in this braided bread are symbolic of the Trinity. Anise extract gives this bread its unique flavor and can be found in health food stores or the spice and flavoring section in most grocery stores.

  • Basic sweet dough
  • 1 tablespoon pure anise extract
  • 1 egg, well beaten
  • 1 tablespoon anise seeds

Again, follow the recipe for basic sweet dough. When mixing the ingredients together, stir in anise extract. After the second rising, divide the dough into six equal parts by rolling the dough into a large, even rectangle, roughly 16 by 24 inches, then slicing it with a sharp knife. With each group of three strands, gently fold the pieces into an even braid. Tuck the strands under the loaf for a neater finish. Place the resulting two braids on a well-greased cookie sheet and allow to rise. Brush the tops with the beaten egg. Sprinkle the tops of each braid with anise seeds. Bake the braids in a 325-degree oven until well-browned. These loaves will be shiny and beautiful. This bread is best eaten while warm.

Tsoureki: Greek Easter Twist

This braided bread is shaped into a circle and sprinkled with sesame seeds. It is adorned with beautiful red eggs. Greek eggs are dyed deep red to represent the blood of Christ, and eggs also represent new life and springtime.

  • Basic sweet dough
  • 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 well-beaten egg
  • 1 tablespoon sesame seeds

Prepare a double batch of the basic sweet dough recipe. Add vanilla to the basic ingredients. Allow dough to rise first and second time as in the other recipes. After the second rising, divide the dough in two equal pieces. From these, make two large braids (as in Italian Anise Easter Bread). These large braids each will require a well-greased baking sheet. Place each braid on its baking sheet and make a circle out of each. Tuck the ends together to make a well-formed and smooth round. At three or four points, add red dyed hard-boiled eggs to represent the shape of a cross. (It would be wise to boil and color these eggs during the first and second dough rising.) Allow the dough to rise full and round for another hour. Brush the top of each twist with the beaten egg. Sprinkle the tops of each with sesame seeds. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 30-40 minutes, or until deep golden.