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Ethnic Easter Eats

Take a break from that chocolate bunny and savor these old-world delicacies.
Saturday Mar 06, 2010.     By Sharon Hoyer
Centerstage Chicago Nightlife City Guide Arts

photo: courtesy of Bridget Montgomery

We make a lot of hullabaloo over Christmas here in the states. But in many parts of Europe, Easter is the most anticipated Christian holiday—a celebration of spring and rebirth marked by feasts of foods as drenched in symbolism as they are in frosting. Whether you're in Greektown or Little Italy, during Holy Week you'll find some native version of sweet leavened bread: the staff of life. Here are a few bakeries cooking up traditional Easter treats to help you break fast like they do back in the old country.

Tsoureki and koulourakia from Artopolis Bakery Cafe
Sweet, yeasty loaves of Greek tsoureki are braided around hard-boiled eggs—dyed crimson on Holy Thursday to signify the blood of Christ—and eaten on Easter Sunday to break the Lenten fast. Artopolis Bakery, a bastion of Greek tradition, offers two sizes of the strikingly attractive bread. Pick up the bigger loaf and partake in another Greek tradition: cracking your egg against a friend's. The person holding the un-cracked egg enjoys good luck for the rest of the year.

Pick up a dozen koulourakia for dessert to set, as Artopolis GM Maria Melidis puts it, a "proper Easter table." The little butter cookies are baked year-round, but get dressed up in twists and braids for the holiday, and make the perfect complement to an after-dinner Greek coffee.

Hot cross buns from Bennison's Bakery
Hot cross buns are an English tradition, baked and immediately consumed on Good Friday. Elizabeth I can be credited with giving the buns special Easter significance when, in 1592, she banned them except on religious holidays and special occasions. The yeasty buns, spiced with cloves, cinnamon and allspice and topped with a cross, were considered good-luck charms—hung from rafters to ward off fires, kept aboard boats to prevent shipwrecks, even buried in stacks of corn to scare away pests.

photo: courtesy of Bridget Montgomery

Legend has it that hot cross buns baked on Good Friday never get moldy, but you won't have the will to test the theory if you pick up Bennison's version: a spicy, sticky delight that doesn’t skimp on the icing. Traditionally, the buns are baked from simple, yeasty dough and sweetened with dried currants, but the award-winning bakers here also offer jazzed-up versions christened with custard, apple, raspberry or cherry jelly.

Pastiera from Original Ferrara Bakery
The origins of pastiera are a matter of debate; did the egg-laden cake start as a pre-Christian rite of spring, offered to Ceres by a pagan priestess? Or was it first baked at the behest of a Neapolitan nun to capture the essence of Easter in its citrus fragrance? Regardless of which story you prefer, this rich egg-and-ricotta dessert is now an Easter tradition in Naples.

Slow-cooked, fermented grains and a balance of aromatic spices mark an authentic pastiera. It's a labor-intensive recipe, made with love and guarded jealously by housewives throughout Naples. Fortunately, you need only go as far as Little Italy to taste the Ferrara family's version of this creamy, cheesecake-y delicacy.

Makowiec and paczki from Pasieka Bakery
Although makowiec is commonly served alongside the Polish sausages and sugar lamb at Easter dinner, this sweet roll isn't strictly a holiday dish. Lucky for us, it's available at Pasieka Bakery year-round. The dense loaf is made from rich sour-cream-and-egg dough, rolled with a crumbly filling of poppy seeds, raisins and nuts and doused in lemon icing. Pasieka displays rows of handsome makowiec in its front window. If your Polish is rusty, you may have to do some pointing to complete your purchase; the authenticity of the baked goods here is without question.

And if you didn't get your paczki on Fat Tuesday, or if you haven't tasted the jelly-filled doughnut the angels eat in heaven each day, Pasieka has an assortment to counteract the effects of all that fasting.

Dye-ing for more Easter fun? Check it out:

Easter Brunches
Ham Alternatives
Easter Egg Hunts
Easter Dessert Recipes

Check out more from Centerstage's 2010 Chicago Easter Guide.


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