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The Passion of the Crust
Though American tastes at Easter emphasize the entrée, globally and historically, the season offers a bounty of breadstuffs

By B.A. Nilsson

For many centuries, the Festival of Eastre (or Eastore) celebrated a fertility goddess whose name also denoted the fertility season. In her honor, an ox was sacrificed and, according to Charles Panati’s book The Sacred Origins of Profound Things, an image of the ox’s horns was “carved into ritual bread”—which evolved into the twice-scored Easter biscuits we call hot cross buns. In fact, the word “bun” derives from the Saxon for “sacred ox”: boun.

It’s also reckoned that the cross was a sun wheel, signifying the balance of day and night at the vernal equinox.

As Easter became more of a Christian tradition, so too did hot cross buns. Early Christians noted the fortuitous coincidence between the Eastre feast and their own celebration of the Resurrection, and so planned their ceremony to overlap. With the threat of persecution ever at hand, it allowed Christian ritual to go relatively unnoticed.

Hot cross buns seem to be more of an English than American Easter breadstuff, perhaps reasserting England’s reclamation of the tradition after notorious killjoy Oliver Cromwell forbid the buns because of their pagan heritage—an edict rescinded by Elizabeth I. (A superstition attached to them suggests that hot cross buns baked on Good Friday will never go stale.)

Although Easter dinners around the world typically feature fabulous meatstuffs, allowing Lenten fasters to make up for lost entrées, special Easter breads have emerged from many different cultures.

Easter in Greece may be the most dramatic, beginning with a soup called mageritsa, made from a lamb’s head, heart, liver, and intestines, while the rest of the lamb rotates on a spit. Greek Easter bread, called lambropsomo (or, in a Turkish-derived variant, tsoureki), is a braided loaf heavy with symbolism. The braid’s three strands represent the Trinity, while decorations of wreaths suggest the crown of thorns. If the loaf is round, it’s supposed to represent the sun, rebirth and resurrection. Then there are dyed blood-red eggs in its center, baked with the dough—either one egg as a resurrection symbol or four to denote the cross.

And the egg ritual doesn’t stop there. You might be invited to select a raw egg from a passing basket, which you smack against someone else’s egg. Whoever holds the last intact egg wins good luck for the year to follow.

Italy’s tortona also is made from dough strands twisted around a scarlet egg, while columba di Pasqua is a sweet Passover loaf that uses panettone dough, shaped like a dove and studded with raisins and almonds and candied orange rind. You’ll find a similar bread in Genoa, where it’s called pan dolce, while in Sicily, a large crown-shaped loaf decorated with colored eggs becomes the centerpiece. Venice celebrates with sweet, oversized fugassa di Pasqua buns. Less common is Rieti’s pizza pasqualina, made from ricotta, eggs and honey, and reflecting the Sabine heritage of the region.

Lent doesn’t end in Poland until you’ve had your blessing basket (an array of colored eggs, bread, butter, salt and more) blessed on Easter Sunday. And then there’s the babka, a word meaning “grandmother,” a bread rich with raisins.

Easter happens to be the second-biggest shopping season in Germany, and eggs are a big feature both in gift-giving and at-home celebrations. Which means you might end up eating a traditional Easter meal of eggs in green sauce, the latter an herb-colored mayonnaise. In the bread department, braided (osterzopf), wreath-shaped (osterkranz) and compound braided (striezel) loaves are served, while accompanying treats might be breads baked into the shapes of rabbits and chicks and other familiar holiday symbols.

Bulgaria is an Eastern Orthodox stronghold, with egg coloring on Holy Thursday. They’re put to good use, too, because tradition allows the family’s oldest woman to smear red egg on the children’s faces. Hand-made kolache is the sweet holiday pastry there.

The name is similar to Russia’s kulich, a rich, eggy yeast bread baked in a tin can and decorated with dried fruit, often topped with a red rose.

Easter was believed to be a time of witches in ancient Sweden, and bonfires would be lighted on Maundy Thursday to keep them away. That doesn’t discourage the kids, who celebrate the holiday in a Halloween-like fashion, going door-to-door in witch costumes. Sweden’s Easter pastry is semlor, a sweet bun filled with marzipan and whipped cream. From early times, semlor was only eaten on the Tuesday before Lent, but is now popular throughout the Easter season.

The simplest and most profound of the holiday breads is the unleavened matzoh that features in the Passover Seder. It’s said that matzoh is a symbol both of slavery and freedom, because the lack of leavening allowed it to be prepared quickly during the exodus from Egypt. So important is it to the Seder that all leavened bread is removed from a household before the ritual begins.

If you’re worried about the effect of all of this good food on your diet, here’s surprising news: A study conducted in the United Kingdom two years ago by the Food Standards Agency determined that hot cross buns were the healthiest Easter option. The agency’s nutritionists compared 14 holiday items and found that on a weight-for-weight basis, hot cross buns contained the lowest amount of sugar and fat, the most fiber and the lowest calorie content! Not specified is whether the buns in question had sugar drizzled over them—and, if not, what’s the point?

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Have you eaten at any recently reviewed restaurants? Agree or disagree with B.A.? Let us know what you think...

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What you're saying...

It's me again B.A. The Chain Restaurant loving fat guy who loves big, heaping helpings of prepared, marketed fried things. Even Chicken Fingers.

I could care less about Daniel's at Ogdens to be perfectly honest. I read the review mostly because my office stares right at it's front door and we all watched as the refurbishing was done. My problem here today is with your first two paragraphs.

The kind of news article that bugs you is what percentage of Americans spend 30 minutes or less preparing food!?!? You know what kind of news article bothers me? "Remains of a woman found stuffed in a barrel......" or "....Albany Police Lt. dies from injuries sustained in shootout with suspect." I realize food and it's service and preparation may be the all consuming obsession in your life, but please tell me you have a bigger heart than that.

Maybe the reason "44 percent of weekday meals in the U.S. are prepared in 30 minutes or less.." is that some people work 2 or 3 jobs. Some people may be a single parent with young children, who may only have less than 30 minutes to spare.

But I promise you this, the next time I get 35 minutes or so.........I'll order some Kobe Beef, puff pastry, shitake mushrooms and the ingredients to make a proper buerre blanc....dim the lights, put on a bowtie, apron and plenty of snotty attitude and invite you over for dinner.

Are Chicken Fingers ok for an appetizer?

Mark Eriole
East Greenbush

I really love this guys knack for picking "the best kept secrets" in the Capital District. Way to go B.A.! Keep up the good work!

Mike Aldrich
Rensselaer

Laura Leon's review was wonderful. Her descriptions of the various selections made me hungry. I am saving the review and putting it on my refrigerator to remind me to take a busman's holiday to Great Barrington for melitzana.

Joanne Lue
Albany

Having eaten here twice- I agree with all said by Nillson- HOWEVER- No authentic Mexican place should be totally rated without mention of their Margarita quality -which is superior-very limey with just the right ingredients- and their selection of Mexican Beers-Tecata-Negro Modello and Dos Equis Dark and Amber. Excellent Selection. Another mark of good Mexican cuisine is the freshness of their pico di gallo-the true MEXICAN salsa- again excellent. If it were not for the diner atmosphere I would have rated it 4 stars- and yes- please bring back the star rating system which I relied on heavily.

William Hyde
Pancho's

A surprisingly nice effort for a city which seems to only allow Italian restaurants to thrive.

Bill Graper
Scotia

I very much enjoyed eating dinner at Daniel's at Ogdens. You review described my dining experience perfectly. This wasn't the case with Pancho's. I much prefer Garcia's or Lake View Tavern for Mexican fare. I agree that a restaurant can have an off night so I'll give the second unit on Central Avenue a try.

Mary Kurtz
Castleton

First, yes I miss the star ratings, bring it back. Second, I haven't had a chance to visit Poncho's yet, but I especially like reading the reviews.

Pat Russo
East Greenbush

I would travel to Amsterdam to this restaurant - it's not that far away. People traveled from all over to eat at Ferrandi's in Amsterdam. From his background, I'm sure the chef's sauce is excellent and that is the most important aspect of an Italian restaurant. Sometimes your reviewer wastes words on the negative aspects of a restaurant. I'm looking forward to trying this restaurant - I look forward to Metroland every Thursday especially for the restaurant review. And by the way Ferrandi's closed its Amsterdam location and is opening a new bistro on Saratoga Lake - Should be up and running in May. It will be called Saratoga Lake Bistro. It should be great!

Peggy Van Deloo
Schenectady

So happy to see you finally made out!! Our experiences have always been wonderful, the staff is extremely professional, the food subperb, and the atmosphere very warm and comfortable. Let us not forget to mention "Maria" the pianist on Friday and Saturday nights.

Charlie and Marie
Michaels Restaurant

I have been to Michael's several times and each time I have enjoyed it very much. The food is delicious and the staff is great. Also, Maria Riccio Bryce plays piano there every Friday and Saturday evening, a nice touch to add to the already wonderful atmosphere. It is also easy to find, exit 27 off the thruway to 30 north for about 5 miles.

N. Moore
Albany



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