Easter Baskets and a No Knead Finnish Cardamom Bread
I was raised Catholic, sort of. Dad didn’t practice any religion or profess any belief in a god. Given his passive nature and spineless tendencies, he was probably an agnostic as opposed to an atheist. Mom believed in God, sort of. Her faith was steeped in an “oh what the hell, it can’t hurt to believe” kind of attitude. Her fear of what might be if she didn’t believe in God prevailed though it didn’t translate into a pious life. Mom broke more of the Ten Commandments than she followed.
As a kid, mom pushed me out the door to CCD classes every Saturday morning; on Sundays she sent me back to the same church for mass. I never dared to ask her why she didn’t go herself.
How I hated those Sunday mornings. I bit my lip as I walked into the cold, damp church, silently challenging God to prove his existence by making me invisible. I kept my head down until I found a seat not wanting to meet the pitying glances of the people I passed. Blending in was impossible; I was a tomboy forcefully dolled-up in a hand-me-down dress two sizes too big and finished off with ruffled white bobby socks. Years would pass before I understood that the stares had little to do with my awkward dress and everything to do with a ten-year-old going to church alone.
A few months into my Catholic “education” I realized that I didn’t need to spend an hour in an icy church on a bright summer day. Mom just needed to believe that’s what I’d been doing. So instead of slinking to my seat in church, I picked up a copy of the weekly bulletin from the table in the back. With my proof of attendance in hand, I turned and ran to the playground a few blocks away, where I’d swing and smoke stolen cigarettes until the church bells rang letting everyone, including mom, know that church had ended.
Commandment #5: Honor your father and your mother.
Commandment #8: Thou shall not steal.
This is a long, irreverent way of saying that my Easter has always been deeply rooted in the commercial aspects–the baskets, the rabbits, the eggs, the candy. I believed in the Easter Bunny long before I believed in any god. Church was seldom a part of our Easter celebration. While my friends were in church marveling over the Resurrection, I was at home hunting for my over-loaded Easter basket. It had a magic all its own with its pillowy pink and yellow peeps, peanut butter and chocolate eggs the size of baseballs, and always a giant white chocolate rabbit with tempting ears that I couldn’t wait to sink my silver filling-laden teeth into.
Mom and dad hid my basket the night before Easter. The next morning I waited for what felt like hours until I could hear their voices–my signal that I could leave my room and hunt for my basket. Mom was the mastermind behind the hiding; she never made it easy. Dad would offer clues if mom was out of earshot, eager to see the joy the heaping basket would bring me. I squealed when I finally found it. Mom loved to watch me unpack it, layer by layer, stopping only to nosh on a black jelly bean or four as I worked. Later our tiny house would fill with family and the sweet smells of a roasting ham. Kraft Mac and Cheese casseroles and Jesus were far from our minds.
The baskets continued until I left for college. After that Easter as I knew it faded away. Today, it’s the one holiday that I haven’t managed to build a fulfilling tradition around. For the last twenty years I’ve tried on traditions like they were Easter dresses, and like the pretty but over-sized church dress I wore as a kid, they were often awkward and just not me. We’ve shared the day with Greg’s family, with my family, with our friends. During the best of times we agree to do it again the next year, but that notion yields to ever changing schedules, both ours and theirs. Some years we drop in for egg coloring at my in-laws and watch our nieces and nephews splash around in the inky water. I often consider how my Easter ambivalence might change if I had a toddler of my own in the mix, elbow deep in purple egg dye.
Longing to fill the void that remained, I gravitated to what I know best: food. And being the mutt that I am, I borrowed from the traditions of others. Last year it was Russian Kulich and Polish pierogies, and the year before that, hot cross buns. This year Greg and I are spending Easter alone for the first year in a very long time. I’m baking up a nod to Finland with a delicately sweet loaf of Pulla, and I’m bringing back the Easter basket. That’s right, I’m going to find the biggest basket we have and fill it with Greg’s favorite treats–pistachios, bananas, cookies, peanut butter eggs, crossword puzzles, maybe a new garden book. And, I’m planning to hide it.
No-Knead Pulla: Finnish Cardamom Sweet Bread
Lately, I’ve been experimenting with no-knead egg breads with some exciting results. I don’t mind labor-intensive baked goods especially for delicious, once-a-year, holiday treats, but I know plenty of people who think this fact alone makes me crazy. This pretty, little, no-knead Pulla, adapted from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s recipe at The Guardian, is my testament that bread making can be easy and even fun. It requires just twenty minutes of active time–the yeast does the real work.
2 1/4 cups bread flour
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons instant yeast
1 3/4 teaspoons freshly ground cardamom
1/4 cup butter, melted
1/2 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup milk
1 egg, 1 yolk
1 egg white
1 tablespoon cream
2 teaspoons coarse sugar (I used turbinado.)
2 tablespoons sliced almonds
- In a large bowl, whisk together the flours, salt, yeast, and 1-1/2 teaspoons cardamom. Make a well in the center.
- In a separate bowl, combine the melted butter and sugar. Whisk in the milk, egg, and egg yolk. Stir the wet ingredients into the flour. Bring the dough together with your hands when it gets too stiff to stir. It should be soft and slightly tacky, resembling a shaggy ball. If it’s too sticky, add flour a little at a time.
- Transfer the dough to a greased bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm, draft-free place until doubled. (Mine took about four hours in a 65°F room.)
- Line a baking sheet with a Silpat or parchment paper.
- Turn the dough onto a lightly floured board. Divide into three equal sections. Roll each piece into a rope 18-inches long. Pinch the ropes together at one end. Braid them together from the pinched end to form a loaf. Pinch the opposite ends together. Tuck both pinched ends under to make a neat loaf. Place on the prepared baking sheet. Cover again and leave to rise until doubled in size. (About an hour in the same 65°F room.)
- Preheat the oven to 375°F.
- Whisk together the remaining 1/4 teaspoon cardamom, egg white, and cream; brush on the loaf. Sprinkle with sugar and almonds.
- Bake for 20-25 minutes, until golden brown.
Makes 1 loaf.