Pascha Bread: An Easy, Adapted Recipe for the Modern Orthodox Cook

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

For those of you who don't know, I'm Greek Orthodox. A detailed description of that is another blog in itself, so we'll just cliff note it right now in food terms for Easter, breaking it down to: red dyed eggs, lamb, lemons, and pascha bread.

Pascha bread is a sweet yeast bread made with eggs, flour, honey, yeast, and traditionally an anise flavored ingredient that is served first thing to break the long fast after midnight mass early Sunday morning. The flavors, shapes and sizes of this bread vary with the culture. It can have a cheese mixture baked in the middle like a Danish pastry. It can be plain and made in a cross or rope shape, or a wreath as shown her. It can be topped with anything from sesame seeds to sea salt. Personally I'm not a huge fan anise flavored anything, so when I re-conceptualized this recipe, that was the first to go. Instead, I substituted with a much milder almond extract that paired beautifully with the honey and granulated sugar I sprinkled on top.

Traditionally, my grandma was the big cook in the family. But in her older age and since suffering a mild stroke earlier this year, she's all but retired from the kitchen. Since my mother is completely uninterested in cooking (apparently the gene skipped a generation), it's come down to yours truly to pick up the slack.

Easter foods are characteristically difficult. From intricately patterned breads like the traditional Pascha Bread (above), to big pieces of roasted lambs, complex soups made with various lamb "parts" and even Romania's answer to the Scottish haggis, the holiday is in no way easy. Add to that a week's long of masses at night, a horrendous fasting schedule, and midnight mass Saturday night and it's a recipe for Holy Shit Week.

But I managed to figure out some shortcuts, revamp some traditions to make them more palatable to this generations tastes and preparation time schedules, and voila! A pretty kickass feast.

I began by trying my hand this year at the pascha bread which I'd never made before. I'd never actually made bread before period, let alone one that required kneading, braiding, and the exact placement of dyed eggs. I had an aversion to yeast for the longest time. I had a feeling failing at a yeast bread would expose me for the fraud that I am. Truth be told, I suck at baking. A lot.

So I spent all of Thursday and Friday saying "Don't do the bread." "No, do the bread." "No, don't do the bread." Until I finally settled on doing the damn bread. And so after screwing up the first batch, I came out with a pretty damn good second batch that tasted good, was authentic, and surprisingly not that hard.

In researching recipes for pascha bread, I found anything from a simple yeast bread to a recipe to make 6 whole loaves, which is in one word: stupid. No one, and I mean NO one has time during Holy Week or any week for that matter to make fucking bread. And if you have two small kids like me and four dogs? Then it's just game over. So I configured a recipe for one loaf, with mild flavors that's easy to make. And took pictures to help out in the making process! Try it next year for Easter even if you're not Orthodox! It's a tasty bread that makes for a pretty presentation on the table as well!

Pascha Bread
4 Tbsp unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 heaping Tbsp honey
2 eggs, at room temperature
2 tsp (1 package) instant yeast
2 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp almond extract (or anise)
4 cups all-purpose flour + about 3/4 cup more for kneading
1 1/3 cup whole milk, at room temperature
parchment paper
4 hard boiled dyed eggs
1 egg yolk + 1 tsp water for egg wash
granulated sugar for dusting

In a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together the butter and honey on medium-high speed until combined. Add the eggs, yeast, 1 cup of the flour, salt and almond extract and beat until combined on medium speed, about 2 minutes. Next, add the milk and 2 cups of flour (saving 1 cup and the 3/4 cup for kneading) to the batter while mixer is on low speed, alternating between milk and flour. In other words, add some milk, then 1 cup of flour, more milk, the other cup of flour, then the rest of the milk.

Scrape down the sides of the bowl using a spatula and change out the paddle attachment with the dough hook. Add the remaining 1 cup of flour all at once, reserving the 3/4 cup amount for kneading to the side. Beat on low speed about 10 minutes. The dough will be very sticky and soft.

To knead the dough, dust some of the 3/4 cup flour on a flat surface (counter top, large wooden cutting board, marble board, etc.). Gather the dough into the middle and dust it with more flour. Now you're ready to knead. To knead the dough, bring the outside edges into the middle, folding it over the top, and push the middle towards the outside. Rotate the dough and repeat. Keep rotating, pulling from outside-in, pushing in to out and adding flour as needed so the dough doesn't stick. Knead for 5 minutes, then place dough in a lightly greased glass bowl to rest. Cover with a kitchen towel (or paper towel) and let stand in a warm, dry place free of drafts for 3.5 hours. I find it best to place it on a stove top with the oven on 275-350 degrees.

During this resting period, your dough will rise and double in size. This means the yeast is working. If it's not rising by 3.5 hours then that means your yeast was bad or old and you'll have to start over with good yeast.

Once it's risen then take your fist and punch the dough in the middle. This releases the air out. Cover it again with the towel and let it rise again, 1.5 -2 hours until it's puffed up again.

Now you're ready to braid.

Take your dough out on a very lightly floured working surface. Your braid needs to be around 2 feet long, so make sure you're working on counter space or a table that's long enough to accommodate it. Take the dough and cut it into 3 equal parts. Take one piece and roll it out into a rope about 2 feet long. Do the same with the other pieces.

Bring the ends of the 3 ropes together and push them into each other, creating a starting point. Then as you would braid a pony tail, start braiding down the ropes, crossing the outside rope with the middle one, all the way down:

..until you've finished braiding your whole dough:

As you can see, for me the braid started off rough and got prettier towards the end. Don't sweat it if that happens! Although professional grandmas all over Europe can braid these suckers perfectly, we are not those grandmas! And we can hide imperfections with the eggs later, as you'll see.
Take your rope and place it on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper (I forgot to do that), and make a wreath shape by joining the ends together:

It's now time to add your eggs if you like. You can certainly omit this step but the eggs are a characteristic part of this bread. Simply add already boiled and dyed Easter eggs to the bread. Tradition calls for red eggs, but we did pastels.

Carefully nudge in the eggs in the folds of the dough, using them to hid any imperfections.

Let the dough stand with the eggs for 40 minutes so the dough can rise a little above the eggs, securing them in. During this time, preheat your oven to 400 degrees.
Next, use the egg wash (combine 1 egg yolk with 1 tsp of water and lightly beat) or even plain milk and brush it on top of the bread. This will help the bread get golden brown as well as serve as a "glue" for any toppings. Then sprinkle the granulated sugar right on top. If you like, you can use sea salt or slivered almonds, poppy seeds or sesame seeds...whatever you like.

Bake in a 400 degree oven for 10 minutes, then turn the oven temperature down to 350 degrees and continue to bake 25 minutes until golden brown. Turn the bread halfway through the cooking process to ensure even cooking. (this means to shift the baking pan around, not turn the bread over on itself).
Let cool at least an hour before serving.
I like serving the bread with other snacky foods like dates and almonds. Everything about Orthodox Easter is symbolism. The 3 braids in the bread are the Trinity (father, son, holy spirit), the eggs represent the renewal of life, the dates are the sweetness of life and the almonds are the bitterness. This is life on a plate, represented.


Amanda Ebner said...

Beautiful! I, too, am not a baker to speak of, so I am in awe of your braided bread. Nice work!

Mishy said...

Thanks! Frankly, I'm still shocked I pulled it off. I'm truly a horrendous baker. But this has emboldened me. I might try my hand at a traditional bread in the next few months.