Joanie's beautiful Easter wreath, taken one Easter Sunday years ago when we were at her house for breakfast. The table was set with boiled eggs and tea, a sweet yeasted bread crafted into the shape of a proud rooster and plenty of sweet butter and homemade jams to spread on. The sweet sunshine filtered into her living room, casting lines of shadows against the portrait of her mother. It was such a nice morning.
This year, it's hard to work up the enthusiasm to celebrate a time of rebirth and new beginnings. Our circumscribed days are growing ever more so. We were warned these would be the hardest months and that has, so far, turned out to be true, at least for me. The days crawl by, not like last spring, when the one saving grace amidst all the fear and uncertainty was the speed with which the days were finished. This time around, the children are at each others' throats, the adults are tired and worn out, and a sentiment akin to hopelessness is settling into the cracks. But sometimes traditions are there if only to hold onto, white-knuckled, in a bid to spread some semblance of normality.
Today is Maundy Thursday, also known as Gründonnerstag in Germany. You're supposed to eat green things today, boiled potatoes with herb sauce, for example, or the Grüner Kuchen in Classic German Baking, a hearty, savory dish of yeasted dough topped with bacon, parsley and scallions.
On Easter Sunday, Germans celebrate with beautiful breakfast tables, usually starring a sweet yeasted bread of some kind, plaited into a wreath. (Joanie's animal sculptures are one of a kind.) If you want to make something special for your Easter Sunday breakfast, you could make the Rosinenzopf in Classic German Baking and either leave it as a regular loaf or roll the dough pieces slightly longer, then craft a braided wreath out of the dough instead (make a long braid, then form into a circle and weave the ends together, before brushing the whole thing with an egg wash.) If you have large bunny cookie cutters, you can skip the wreath and make individual sweet bunnies. Take the Rosinenzopf dough, but leave out the raisins, and roll out the dough to a rectangle that's about an inch thick. Use the cutter to cut out bunnies, transfer them to a prepared baking sheet, brush them with egg wash, decorate them with pearl sugar and raisins and then bake up into these golden delights.
And if you're feeling like either of those ideas isn't quite "EASTER!" enough for you, let me suggest the fantastic Aachener Poschweck, a sweet loaf from Aachen that has been made for Easter since medieval times. It's a sweet enriched dough, but you don't just add raisins, you also add chopped almonds and sugar cubes. The cubes, in the heat of the oven, sort of melt into these crusty little geodes which are a delight to find in your slice, and also a delight to eat. The loaf is quite an impressive one to serve at an Easter breakfast, and should be thickly sliced and served with butter and jam or honey. (It can also be eaten as is...) The interplay of rich yeasted dough and crunchy bits of sugar is reminiscent of waffles from Liège (which is just 40 miles away from Aachen).
If you can find fresh yeast, this is the time to use it - it will give your Poschweck the puff power it needs and an exceptionally fluffy, flavorful crumb. (Instant yeast will be fine, your loaf will just be slightly less exuberant, let's say.)
I'll be taking a little break from blogging for the long Easter weekend. I hope you are all hanging in there in one way or another. I'll see you back here next week.
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Makes one 11-inch/28-centimeter loaf
For the loaf:
3/4 cup (100 g) chopped, blanched almonds
1 1/2 ounces (42 g) fresh yeast, or 2 teaspoons instant yeast
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 cup (240 ml) whole milk, lukewarm
4 cups (500 g) all-purpose flour, scooped and leveled, plus more for kneading
11 tablespoons (150 g) unsalted high-fat, European-style butter, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 egg yolks
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup (140 g) raisins
1 cup (125 g) sugar cubes
For the egg wash:
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
2 teaspoons whole milk
1. Place the chopped almonds in a dry skillet and toast over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, until pale golden and fragrant, 5 to 7 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool.
2. Crumble the yeast into a medium bowl and add the sugar. Whisk in the milk until the yeast dissolves. Cover the bowl with a dishcloth and set aside for 15 minutes. If using instant yeast, skip this step and simply add the yeast to the flour and other ingredients in the next step.
3. Place the flour in a large mixing bowl and make a well in the middle. Cube the butter and place in the well. Add the vanilla extract to the yeast mixture and pour and scrape it all into the well. Before mixing, add the egg yolks and the salt. Using your hands, mix everything together and knead in the bowl until the dough comes together. Then scrape out onto a lightly floured surface and continue to knead, adding flour only if necessary, until the dough is smooth, 3 to 5 minutes more. You want the dough to remain as light and floppy as possible, so resist the urge to add additional flour, unless absolutely necessary, for example if the dough still is sticky after several minutes of kneading. The more you knead, the less sticky the dough should become. At the end of kneading, the dough should no longer be sticky. Form into a ball and set aside on the work surface to relax for a few minutes.
4. Gently roll out the dough until it is about an inch thick. Place the raisins, toasted almonds, and sugar cubes on the surface of the dough. Gather the dough up and around the fillings and knead them in until well distributed throughout the dough. This will be unwieldy at first, but as you keep going, the dough will start to come together again. Form the dough into a ball and put back into the mixing bowl. Cover with the dishcloth and place in a warm, draft-free spot for 1 hour.
5. After 1 hour, preheat the oven to 350°F/180°C. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Gently push down the dough to knead through once, and then shape into a 9-inch-/23-centimeter-long loaf that is about 5 inches wide in the middle. Place on the baking sheet.
6. To make the egg wash: Whisk the egg yolk with the sugar in a small bowl. Whisk in the milk. Brush the loaf evenly all over with the egg wash. Using a very sharp (ideally serrated) knife, slash the top of the loaf three times diagonally. Set aside in a warm, draft-free spot for 15 minutes.
7. Bake for 45 minutes, or until the Poschweck is a rich, deep golden-brown and sounds hollow when tapped. Place the sheet on a rack and let the loaf cool completely before serving in thick slices. The bread is best eaten the day it is made, but leftovers can be lightly toasted for a very special next-day breakfast.