Give your Easter baking a lift
At Easter, religious traditions cross paths with the changing seasons at a time when you see life revving-up in the countryside. You might see parallels when you make hot cross buns at home as the milder climate causes dough to rise full-throttle into airy roundness. In springtime, nature feels driven at increasing speed and there’s a rush to the blossoming in the garden that feels upbeat and inspiring.
Many countries have vast Easter traditions, dwarfing Christmas in comparison, and the rising of dough is a metaphor that fits Easter recipes well. And by adding the last of winter’s hoard of luxury − ingredients such as butter, spices, dried fruit, honey and sugar − you’re making a confident sign that summer’s abundance will soon be back with us, and that the significance of Easter is worth some expense.
Around the world, home kitchens offer a wide selection of Easter baking ideas:
Babka - a sweet yeast cake found in Eastern and Central European baking
Bochánek - a sweet bread from the Czech Republic
Choereg - an Armenian spiced plaited bread
Colomba Pasquale - a dove shaped sweet bread from Italy
Cozonac or kozunak - found in Bulgaria, Macedonia, Romania and Albania, a rich sweet raisin bread
Fola, or pão doce - a Portuguese bread that is often sweetened
Gubana - a hazelnut-flavoured sweet bread
Hot cross buns - the English tradition, though now popular all over Britain.
Kulich - Russian sweet bread
Paasbrood - a fruit Dutch bread
Pinca - a Croatian bread
Pinza - from Germany, Austria and Slovenia
Tsoureki - a Greek plaited bread wrapped around, or served with, a coloured egg
Velykinė boba - from Lithuania
Rosca de Pascua - from Argentina
Easter is also a time that, traditionally at least, brought families back together, which means Easter baking recipes are often generous in size and meant for sharing. The modern approach is to minify the shape, so when baked they don’t seem like such a daunting carb-fest on your plate. Little babka, individual paasbrood and pão doce are tempting and easy to share. But if you must go big, think of it as a meal. Mugs of coffee or hot chocolate, a Colomba cut on the table and served with butter − it all adds to a sense of sharing.
La Colomba, meaning dove, is the most well-known of Italy's many Easter cakes.
The lowdown on high-rising sweet dough
Butter, sugar and spice aren’t ideal bedtime-buddies for yeast. So before you start adding more of that trinity, here’s a little information on what you need to keep your Easter baking light and delicate.
The fat in butter inhibits yeast from pulling in the nutrients and sugars it needs to grow and multiply: a butter-rich yeast dough might rise well at the beginning but appear to slow down after that. Though the enzyme released by the yeast cells that causes aeration in the dough, zymase, isn’t particularly slowed by fat, there just won’t be that much of it present… unless you help it along. Warmth, time and extra yeast will get it moving faster:
• Keeping your dough around 28C, near a radiator or somewhere else warm helps speed the yeast activity up. This applies to the bulk dough before shaping and the final rise.
• Leaving the dough overnight in the fridge before shaping helps the final crumb become more tender when baked and allows yeast to multiply a little, but the dough will still need warmth and a long rise before baking.
• If your dough still seems still too slow, try increasing the yeast or even doubling it next time.
Though a little sugar helps the activity of yeast, too much slows it down. This applies to sugar in all its variations, including honey and syrups (artificial sweeteners excluded). For example, if you place 400g of strong flour in a bowl with 300ml warm water, and a teaspoon each of fast-action yeast and salt, the dough made will be ready for shaping after an hour. If you add 25g sugar to the recipe the dough will be ready after 45 minutes, slightly faster than normal. But add 50g sugar to that recipe, and the dough starts to take longer and will be ready after 2 hours; add 100g sugar, and it will need 4-6 hours before shaping and even then will bake very heavily. But there are tricks you can use to keep your dough sweet tasting and light:
• Think ‘sweet flavour’ rather than sugar. Finely grated citrus zest, vanilla, cocoa, coconut, or candied fruit (glacé ginger or chocolate chips) all trick the brain into thinking something is more sugar-rich that it is.
• Layer sweetness through the dough: roll it thinly, spread with nutella, custard, or sprinkle with brown sugar and spice, then roll it up, twist it, or cut it in pieces to stuff roughly into your baking tin so they weld together when baked.
• Ice it: a simple glacé icing or sugar syrup, flavoured even better, turns plain butter dough into something distinctly cake-like.
Spices can accelerate or slow the action of yeast in dough. Tiny amounts appear to increase the activity of yeast, but some spices like cinnamon and clove will slow the yeast down if used in large amounts. Now, if you’re after richly spiced hot-cross buns, this is a bit of a blow but there are things you can do:
• layering and icing spices in your dough is the easiest. Make a sugar glaze with cinnamon and brush this over your buns, or make a ginger icing and glaze your Babka or plaited dough with it.
• use food grade spice oils or flavourings, available from cake decorating or bakery ingredient suppliers
• make an overnight ferment or sponge, and add some spice to that. This will give the yeast more time to multiply before you make your dough.
Give it some style
Tiny sugar flowers, sprinkles of nibbed sugar or even big white silk bows have a place in baking, and Easter is a good time to play with decoration. With the exception of architects and puritans, some fuss around your bundle of hot cross buns or Colomba shows a little pride in what you’ve baked.
• sweet dough cries out for a finish before baking. A simple egg wash, beaten with a pinch of salt to bread down the white and make it easier to brush, is often enough. But think about sprinkling on nibbed sugar, crushed sugar cubes, coffee sugar, or even broken pieces of amaretti.
• clear cellophane on its own, available from artists’ supply shops, or tied with a simple ribbon immediately makes what’s inside look glamorous and is more hygienic for travelling.
• add colour with tissue or crepe paper. Even if you want to present your hot cross buns in a beaten up biscuit tin, a few layers of tissue paper inside will make it more impressive.
What are you baking this Easter?