Like me, your Easter memories may be dominated by chocolate bunnies, Cadbury’s Creme Eggs, and baskets stuffed with plastic grass. But long before man invented Peeps — in other words, the Dark Ages — Europeans celebrated the resurrection of Christ by roasting lamb and baking Easter breads. As the many European ethnic communities that once populated the East Bay melted into the great WASP melting pot, so too did the ethnic bakeries that once served them. Nevertheless, it’s still possible to find some of these special Easter breads if you do a little hunting.
The Easter bread that is most familiar to us comes from the British Isles: hot cross buns, studded with dried fruits — deep-winter luxuries in medieval Europe — and marked with the sign of the crucifix. Every year, Neldam’s Danish Bakery in Oakland, Nabolom in Elmwood, and Bit of Ireland in San Leandro celebrate the season by selling hot cross buns throughout the last few weeks of Lent. Neldam’s soft, pull-apart buns, flavored with cardamom, are topped with lemon custard and strips of candied citron, and Nabolom simply spreads an X of tangy lemon icing across its denser, cakier fruit-filled rounds.
Northern Italians celebrate Easter with colomba, a dove-shaped bread made of rich panettone dough. Genova Delicatessen in Oakland doesn’t bake its own colomba, but stocks two kinds made by Bay Area Italian bakeries, one studded with fruits and topped with rock sugar, and another baked into a more traditional round loaf into which dyed Easter eggs have been cooked.
Easter breads made with eggy doughs or crowned with whole eggs are common to many southern and Central European countries. Although their presence announces the end of Lent, during which many of the devout eschewed eggs and butter, the whole dyed eggs probably date back to pagan spring celebrations. The Greeks dye their eggs red (the color of Christ’s blood, naturally) and nestle them into tsoureki. The Portuguese bake whole undyed eggs into the top of sweet folares, which you can find this week at Hiser Bakery in Hayward, the East Bay’s last remaining Portuguese bake shop. According to the counterperson, Hiser makes two-egg, four-egg, and six-egg folares, and you’d better place your order before Good Friday.
And the Russians are famous for kulich (koo-leech). Leo Malkov, owner of Babushka Russian Deli in Walnut Creek, bakes about 100 loaves during the two weeks before Easter and always sells out. Malkov’s tall, sweet, eggy bread is decorated with spices and iced with Cyrillic letters that stand for “Christ is risen.” According to Malkov, Russian Orthodox worshippers typically buy the bread, and bring it to church to be blessed. The holier-than-before kulich then comes home to be eaten with a sweet fresh-cheese mixture called pashka.