There is something deeply joyful about the Easter holiday. It is the first one after Christmas and those miserable last winter months are behind us. Best of all the days are getting longer, the sun is coming out, and the daffodils are bursting into flower. Spring is upon us and Summer is on the way, and something primal in us lights up with joy. It is hardly surprising that the early Christian Church decided to locate the key Christian festival at this time of the year and why so many religions have festivals celebrating the onset of Spring.
Easter also marks the end of the Lent fast. Very few in the Western world fast these days, but the old traditions of breaking that fast still hold strong. Add all the wonderful Nordic traditions involving rabbits, hares and eggs celebrating spring fertility and you have a baker’s dream when it comes to celebrating the onset of Spring in flour, egg , sugar and of course chocolate.
What is most interesting is that so many of the Easter foods involve a form of enriched sweet bread with variations of dried fruit and coloured eggs. This is hardly surprising as most of these traditions predate the invention of baking powder in the 19th Century and so to get any lightness in your bake you needed to use yeast as a rising agent.
Everyone in Britain knows the Hot Cross Bun which seems to make an appearance in the shops on New Year’s Day, the Poles have the Babka, the Greeks have Tsoureki, the Germans have the Osterkranz, the Venetians have the Gubana, the Spanish have the Hornazo, the Romanians have Pasca, the Balkans has Potica, the Czechs have Mazanec, the Croats have Primorski Uskrsne Bebe which I think are particularly cute. I could literally go on and on and on. Virtually every country in Europe has a yeasted sweet bread, many using coloured eggs for decoration and many plaited to make them more special to celebrate the Passion.
And then there are the cakes. In Britain we have Simnel cake, a light fruit cake topped with marzipan with 11 balls symbolising the apostles (minus Judas). The Italians have a dove shaped panettone called Colomba de Pasqua, the Russians have Pashka, the Poles have Mazurek,the Norwegians have an Orange Cake, the Germans have Lammkuchen, and the Spaniards have the ever so slightly camp Mona de Pascua.
Interestingly the only country that does not seem to have an Easter baking tradition is France, but they make it up with that other great Easter tradition – Chocolate. This being France they don’t have some nasty Cadbury’s branded thing. They really beautiful chic eggs made with proper chocolate that would make anyone swoon.
So with such a vast choice to choose from, where does that leave me for my baking challenges over the next few weeks. Well frankly I am not sure. Coloured eggs will be a must, and I fancy trying a home made chocolate egg. A Simnel Cake is essential because traditions must be followed, as are a batch of luscious rich hot cross buns. I find myself presented with such huge choice that for once I just want someone to tell me what to do. The good news is that the husband and I are taking a week off work which gives me the time to experiment a little more than usual, and enjoy the burgeoning garden and hopefully some beautiful sunny Spring Days.