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Published: Tuesday, 3/30/2004

Traditional twists for the Easter table

Rome Marinelli forms a loosely braided ring of dough. Rome Marinelli forms a loosely braided ring of dough.
WADSWORTH / BLADE Enlarge

Easter breads are ethnic traditions that are labors of love.

Making the classic yeast breads, such as sweet Italian Easter Egg Bread baked with Easter eggs, Greek Easter Bread flavored with anise and orange and baked with red-colored eggs, and circular Polish babka baked in a fluted mold, is time-consuming. These breads call for a couple of risings plus the baking, and before you know it, hours have passed.

For those who haven't the time or patience for such baking, there are shortcuts. I've discovered bread-machine recipes and quick recipes made with refrigerated dough.

First, the authentic Italian Easter Egg Bread.

Rome Marinelli of Toledo makes the most magnificent bread, including Italian Easter bread and a heavenly ciabatta. ("Ciabatta translates into slipper - it's very airy," he says.) If you attended St. Francis de Sales High School Fun-a-rama on Feb. 29, you may have bought a loaf of honey orange or honey rye - he made 36 loaves for the fund-raiser.

Mr. Marinelli, an active businessman who makes bread for a hobby, bakes holiday breads twice a year, for Christmas and Easter. His recipe for Italian Easter Egg Bread, the braided bread with colored sprinkles and a sugar glaze, comes from his mother and mother-in-law.

Both were from Italy. His mother was from the Abruzze region, where Mr. Marinelli was born 76 years ago. His family came to the United States when he was 2 and settled in Philadelphia. Mr. Marinelli's father, a tailor, was an excellent baker, Mr. Mrinelli says.

Mr. Marinelli's mother-in-law was from Calabria, which his wife, Teresa, who was born in Philadelphia, describes as the "toe of the boot" on a map of Italy.

Mr. Marinelli started baking as a teenager and he has shared his hobby with family and friends ever since. He is very precise in measuring ingredients - he weighs the flour on an electronic scale - and he uses different techniques for specific breads.

For a hard-crusted bread such as the ciabatta, he places the unbaked loaf on a clay shelf in the oven and uses a wooden peel. "I use a 500-degree oven when I start and I moisturize the oven with a spray bottle of water," he says. This approximates brick-lined and steam-injected ovens.

As for the Italian Easter Egg Bread, which is baked at 350 degrees, he begins making it the day before Easter. It takes two hours for the proofing and two risings, and Mr. Marinelli makes it in stages.

"I use little yeast," he says. "I use a starter, which I keep in the freezer." Because the strands of bread are so long, he braids only two of them. "Three braids don't work well to achieve the wreath result."

He makes the Easter bread in three stages plus baking: First, he makes the sponge with the yeast (steps 1, 2, and 3 in recipe). This can be done the night before. "It can rest overnight unrefrigerated," he says." In the second stage (steps 4, 5, and 6), he mixes the ingredients in a mixer with a dough hook to get a soft dough; at this point, the bread can also rest overnight in the refrigerator. The third stage (step 7) involves the final rising.

"I can let it rise overnight in the refrigerator. In the morning, I let it get to room temperature," he says. The dough continues to rise as it warms, and when it reaches room temperature, it is ready to be baked.

Despite his attention to detail, Mr. Marinelli says, "When starting with bread baking, improvise. Bread baking is not that precise." By this he means that the flour may absorb more water one time than another.

Easter bread is delicious and special for the holiday. "Easter bread is sweet for Easter morning," Mrs. Marinelli says. "You want a large breakfast after Lent. We have eggs, sausage, and the bread."

The Easter eggs baked in the bread symbolize the risen Christ, says the couple. To make his bread, Mr. Marinelli uses raw colored eggs, but the eggs also can be hard-boiled, colored, and baked in the bread. The Marinellis do not eat the eggs.

"The number of eggs we use varies," Mrs. Marinelli says. "For Easter, you do fix a beautiful table after Mass. You take your time eating."

Yeast breads also are an Easter tradition in other cultures.

During the traditional Easter meal, Greek families eat Tsoureki, a bread flavored with orange and anise, said to recall the sweetness of life, writes Betsy Oppenneer in Celebration Breads: Recipes, Tales, and Traditions (Simon & Schuster, $30). The braided bread may be left as a long braid or shaped in a wreath to symbolize the circle of life. Bright red hard-cooked eggs are tucked in the folds of the braid to symbolize the blood and suffering of Christ upon the cross.

Eldora Brogan of Maumee flavors Tsoureki Greek Easter Bread with ground mahlepi and ground mastiha, which give a unique flavor and aroma and are spices common to northern Greece. These authentic spices are sold at Petros Foods, 5086 Douglas Rd.

"This is totally another spice. The flavor is not as strong as cinnamon or nutmeg," says Maria Petros. "You must use a grinder. The size of both mahlepi and mastiha is similar to the size of a peppercorn. If you can't get these spices, then you use anise and orange."

Cookbook author Melanie Barnard in Ready, Set, Dough! (Broadway, $17.95) has developed a recipe for Greek Easter Bread made with one 11-ounce tube of refrigerated French bread dough. The bread may be shaped like a circle or left in a long braid, but pinch the ends together to seal them.

While babka is attributed to Polish, Ukranian, and Russian traditions, Ms. Oppenneer says that some say it arrived in Poland in the 16th century with Queen Bona of Italy.

Babka is made in fluted molds; some recipes call for 24 egg yolks and 3/4 pound butter to 6 cups flour baked in molds 16 inches tall. Even though this is a yeast dough, the many eggs are beaten thoroughly to impart as much air as possible so it rises, says Ms. Oppenneer, who uses a decorative bundt pan to bake her dough made with only 4 egg yolks and yeast.

Adapting babka to the bread machine, Beth Hensperger in The Bread Lover's Bread Machine Cookbook (Harvard Common Press, $18.95), opts for a basic dough removed from the machine, stuffed, and rolled up, and baked in the oven. The recipe yields two 7-by-3-inch loaves.

Some cooks may take issue with this departure from babka tradition in method and shape. But if the bread machine determines if you will have Easter bread or not, this recipe may be an option.

Whatever Easter bread you prepare, it will add to your Easter table. "I find time for baking bread by doing it in stages," Mr. Marinelli says. "You can't make a mistake when baking bread. Even when you think you are doing a lousy job, it's still good."

Kathie Smith is The Blade's food editor. Contact her at: food@theblade.com

or 419-724-6155.



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