Fresh Find: Baking of ethnic Easter bread sweetens the spring air

This is the time of year when the sweet smell of baking Easter bread still rises from ethnic churches across the region.

Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette
Easter bread with egg, made by the Ladies Thiloptochos at Mediterra Bakehouse for a fund-raiser.
Click photo for larger image.

This treat is available for a very brief time -- unless you're savvy and freeze some for later.

Volunteers with the Dormition of the Theotokos Greek Orthodox Church in Aliquippa always bake Greek Easter bread, or "tsoureki," at the church, mostly for fellow parishioners.

But every year, Greek artisan bread-baker Nick Ambeliotis invites into his Mediterra Bakehouse members of the church's Ladies Thiloptochos organization for a marathon baking session so they can sell the loaves for charity.

During this year's baking, 25 women produced 300 loaves of tsoureki in about six hours. A key ingredient is mastic, a medicinal gum found only on the island of Chios in the North Aegean Sea. Its crystals are dissolved in water, and the water is used as flavoring.

The sweet, eggy dough is formed into a braided loaf and studded with bright red, hard-cooked eggs. The red represents the blood of Christ, and red is the color of victory -- that is, Christ overcoming death through resurrection. The yolk and white of the egg represent His dual nature, and cracking the shell represents the breaking open of the tomb.

"We froze the breads we made last month," says Ellen Kaffenes, a member of the group. "The bread stockpile will be sold locally as a fund-raiser. We use all the proceeds to help the poor and needy."

The bread -- priced at about $6 per loaf -- is to be available starting next Thursday at Lombardo's Italian Market in Center and at Honeybaked Ham in Ross.

Mediterra is making its own varition of this Greek paska bread -- round loaves with an egg in the middle -- that you may purchase next Friday and Saturday in the South Hills at Uncommon Market, in East Liberty at Whole Foods Market or in Robinson at the Mediterra Bakehouse, 801 Parkway View Drive, (412-490-9130).

Today and tomorrow, women will be mixing, kneading, braiding, baking and wrapping 1,000 loaves of sweet Greek Easter bread -- made with or without sesame seeds, with the mastic but without the egg -- at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral at 419 Dithridge St., Oakland. Pre-ordered loaves can be picked up there starting this afternoon (call 412-682-3866).

The bread, priced at $6, also will be on sale from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday in front of Stamoolis Brothers in the Strip District, and, if there's any left over, in the store Monday through Friday.

As the church newsletter notes, this project of the women's guild, Philoptochos, accounts for two-thirds of its philanthropic budget.

At the historically Italian Queen of Heaven Catholic Church, in Koppel, Beaver County, the Easter bread sale is also a long-standing tradition, one that goes back so far, "I can't even tell you when it started," says administrative assistant Lou Ferrario. He says the bread is a project of The Holy Name Society, a men's group, but "the women help too, because you couldn't do it without the women."

Using a proofing room and ovens in the church's social hall, volunteers grate lemon zest, crack 150 dozen eggs, and mix 1,200 pounds of flour to make about 900 lemon-flavored, two-pound loaves -- some plain ($6) and some with raisins ($6.50).

"Oh, it's delicious," Mr. Ferrario says. Some folks buy and freeze dozen of loaves so they can toast and savor the bread all year 'round.

They started baking yesterday and continue today and tomorrow. Most parishioners pre-order and the bread is available for pickup or walk-in purchase from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and after each Mass, today through Saturday. Mr. Ferrario says, "Usually by Saturday, by the 4:30 Mass, it's all gone and people are complaining that they forgot to order theirs."

He's heard it all: "Are you sure you don't have any in a freezer or something?" "Any burnt loaves I can buy?"

To order or for information, call 724-846-9559.


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