Easter foods around the world
March 29, 2010
Easter traditions around the world celebrate the theme of death, rebirth and springtime. Butterflies, eggs, Easter lilies and other plants are common symbols representing Easter because they each appear “lifeless” in one form and later burst forth into new life.
Easter foods often represent similar symbolism or come from other early traditions. The main dishes and meats that have become the accepted custom are probably due to the fact they were the foods available at that season in the days of primitive food preservation methods.
In many parts of Europe roast pork is still the traditional main dish at weddings and on major feast days.
At Easter, smoked or cooked ham, as well as lamb, have been eaten by most European nations from ancient times, and are now traditional Easter dishes from coast to coast in this country. The roast lamb that many eat on Easter Sunday goes back to the first Passover of the Jewish people.
The sacrificial lamb was roasted and eaten, together with unleavened bread and bitter herbs remembering the angel of God passing over their homes. Christians often refer to Jesus as The Lamb of God. Thus, traditions merged.
It would be too numerous to include the traditional Easter fare of every nationality, but some of the better-known dishes are discussed below. I have also found that because the borders of European countries changed over the years, or countries were invaded by their neighbors, similar foods are claimed by different ethnic groups.
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After the strict fasting of Lent, an explosion of “forbidden” foods appears on the Eastern European Easter table. There is no better example than sweet yeast breads full of butter, sugar and, sometimes, cheese. A staggering number of eggs, a symbol of fertility, new life, and the Resurrection, figures prominently in them.
Their names, often some form of the word “paska,” which means “Easter,” can be half bread, half cake in some countries and a molded cheese dessert in others. It can be confusing trying to figure out which is which, but there are endless variations of recipes available on line.
The dessert version Paskha recipes varied with the type of cheese used – cottage cheese, cream cheese, large-curd pot cheese, or “farmers’ cheese,” – but all insisted on butter, not margarine. The creamy richness of Paskha, in which cheese, candied fruits and nuts are blended and molded in an elegant pyramid, is best appreciated when served with slices of its traditional Russian Easter partner, Kulich. Paskha may also be served alone in wedges like cheesecake.
Although the Russians use a special “Paskha” form in which to shape this Easter dessert, modern recipes suggest that an unglazed clay flower pot lined with several layers of damp cheesecloth can be a good substitute. The traditional Easter dish with its pyramid shape is a symbol of God’s grave, and is decorated with a cross and XB design, the Cyrillic initials of “Christos voskrese,” which means “Christ is risen!”
Although I have never had the opportunity to taste the cheese-like Paskha, it makes me remember a somewhat comparable Easter delicacy made by my Slovak Grandmother (who we called “Baba”). Her Easter Cheese consisted of mainly eggs and milk cooked together until it curdled, similar to making cottage cheese.
The mixture was poured into a flour sack towel and twisted with a broom handle to wring out as much liquid as possible over the tub. When set, it was wrapped and refrigerated. The texture became quite firm like regular cheese and the “egg cheese” was cut into slices for a wonderful treat.
The Russian Kulich, a coffee bread with nuts and raisins, is baked in tall cans, (like a coffee can). It rises over the top of the can like a mushroom when finished. Because this onion-dome shape is symbolic in Russian Orthodoxy, it has been served in Russian homes at Easter for hundreds of years.
The Polish Easter cake, Babka Wielkanocna, is made of a rich yeast dough containing many egg yolks and vast quantities of butter and flavored with white raisins, grated lemon and orange rind. Polish babkas or babas, literally meaning “grandmother,” are so named because they are typically baked in a fluted pan resembling a woman’s full skirt.
Tsoureki, a Greek Easter Twist is shaped into a circle and sprinkled with sesame seeds and adorned with beautiful red eggs. Greek eggs are dyed deep red to represent the blood of Christ. An Italian Anise Easter Bread features three braided strands symbolic of the Trinity.
Hot Cross Buns, one of the most familiar breads of the season, are made from an ancient English sweet dough laced with currants and decorated with frosting crosses. Before Christianity, the buns were served without a cross in honor of the pagan Goddess of Spring.
And did you know that pretzels were first made by monks in a shape to represent a child’s arms folded in prayer. The monks offered the warm, doughy bribe to children who had memorized their Bible verses and prayers. The monks called it a Pretiola, Latin for “little reward.” The Pretiola eventually found its way to Germany, where it became known as the Bretzel or Pretzel.
These traditional Easter foods are just a sampling of the many Easter foods that people around the world have prepared to celebrate Easter. It is my hope that this may motivate readers to try a new tradition, but most of all I wish you all a Blessed Easter.