In a California tract house off the Glendale Freeway, Dora Stoeva kneads a mound of snow-white dough. She has come from her native Bulgaria to visit her daughter, Elly Vulchev, and before long the aroma of sweet bread baking in the oven begins to waft through the pristine house. Soon, huge golden loaves of Cozonac and pasca crowd the kitchen counter. On Sunday, the loaves will be taken to the midnight Easter service at St. George Bulgarian Eastern Orthodox Church in Hollywood, to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ.
In other places--and other churches--throughout Los Angeles, surprisingly similar Balkan Easter traditions will be celebrated.
At the Holy Trinity Romanian Orthodox Church, 300 parishioners will dance, sing and share an Easter Sunday banquet, as they have done for the past 50 years. This year, however, they will celebrate with a keener sense of appreciation. "We hope Romanian people in Romania will see a society with democracy and freedom," says Father Constantine Alecse. "We in America have always enjoyed the freedom to practice our religion."
The banquet usually begins with Balkan appetizers: feta cheese, olives, colored eggs, onions, grilled meats, and drob, a sausage filled with organ meats. The main meal starts with ciorba (the lemony rice or noodle soup, dotted with lamb entrails, which is called mayeritsa in Greek), and then fragrant, spit-roasted whole baby lamb, symbolizing sacrifice, served with stuffed cabbage, vegetables and roast potatoes. As at St. George Bulgarian Church, the most spectacular fare will be Cozonac , pasca and colored eggs.
In Croatia it is traditional to bake a sweet bread similar to pasca, called mlijecni kruh. Eva Kapetanovic, a second-generation Croatian-American, living in Scottsdale, Ariz., continues the tradition, baking bread for Easter as her mother did, and her mother before her.
In Greece, the Easter bread is called tsourekia . "You know," says Sofi Konstantinidis, proprietress of Sofi's restaurant on Third Street in Los Angeles, "this bread is the only sweet bread made in Greece, and the flavorings differ from region to region." Vanilla or lemon zest is preferred in Athens while flavoring from ground kernels of cherry stones, called mahlepi in Greek, is preferred in Smyrna.
All of the variations will show up at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral when parishioners bring their braided breads to church to be blessed. After the Mass, the loaves, which hold red-colored eggs, are served. One piece contains a coin, and tradition has it that he who finds it will have good luck.
In tiny Albania, where all religions have been outlawed since 1967, the traditional breads, Perpec and fogaca, were once prepared by Albanian Catholics. "I remember my mother making Perpec and fogaca in my village in Northern Albania," says Rosena Derani, who now lives in Sherman Oaks with her husband, Akil. "After Easter Mass we would go home and have Perpec with green onions and eggs for breakfast. Of course, this custom is no longer done today." Then she added, "perhaps one day soon it will."
In this country, people have a different worry. What, they wonder, will happen to these traditional foods as fewer and fewer cooks are willing to undertake the time-consuming preparations? Emilia Popa, from Mar Vista, is optimistic. "People will always want to prepare them," she says.
If you want to prepare some of these Balkan Easter breads, which celebrate both Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Easter, here are the recipes.
SOFI'S GREEK EASTER BRAID (Tsourekia)
4 packages dry yeast
1/3 cup warm water (105 to 115 degrees)
1 cup sugar
1 cup melted unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups warm milk
8 to 9 cups unbleached flour
1/2 cup sliced almonds
2 or 3 colored hard-cooked eggs
Dissolve yeast in warm water and let stand 10 minutes at room temperature. Beat 6 eggs with sugar, melted butter, warm milk and salt 1 minute in mixer. Add yeast mixture. Gradually add flour until dough is soft but not sticky.
Knead dough on floured surface until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. Place in buttered bowl, turn buttered side up. Cover with damp towel and let rise in warm place until doubled, about 2 hours.
Punch down dough and divide into 4 portions. Divide each portion into 3 pieces and roll into 12 to 14-inch long ropes. Braid 3 ropes to form long loaf or any desired shape and size. Repeat with remaining ropes. Place breads on large greased and floured baking sheet, cover with clean towel and let rise 15 minutes.
Beat remaining egg and brush over loaf. Sprinkle with almonds.
To decorate with colored eggs, make indentation in 2 or 3 places along braid and press eggs into cavities. Bake at 350 degrees 30 to 35 minutes or until golden brown. Makes 4 loaves.
COZONAC (Balkan Easter Bread)
2 packages dry yeast
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
1 cup warm milk
6 eggs, beaten
1 tablespoon vanilla
2 tablespoons grated lemon zest
2 tablespoons oil
2 tablespoons melted butter
Nut Filling, optional
1 egg white, lightly beaten
2/3 to 1 cup chopped walnuts
Combine yeast, 1 tablespoon sugar, 2 to 3 tablespoons flour and 1/4 cup warm milk in small bowl. Stir to dissolve yeast. Let stand 20 minutes, until mixture begins to foam.
Place 4 cups flour and remaining 1 cup sugar in large bowl and make well in center. Into well, add eggs, remaining 3/4 cup milk, vanilla, lemon zest, oil, butter and yeast mixture. Mix to incorporate liquid into flour, adding up to 1 cup more flour to make dough easy to handle.
Knead dough on floured surface until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. Place in greased bowl and cover with clean cloth. Let rise in warm place 1 to 2 hours until doubled.
Punch down dough. Shape into desired round and rectangular loaves, using greased baking pans to form bread. For loaf with filling, use 2 greased (9-inch) loaf pans. Place 1/4 of dough in bottom of each pan. Spread Nut Filling over dough, leaving 1/2 inch space around dough edge. Cover with another 1/4 portion of dough. Brush with egg white and bake at 325 degrees 50 to 60 minutes. Sprinkle chopped walnuts on top. Makes 2 loaves.
1 cup half and half
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 unsweetened cocoa powder
1 cup ground walnuts
Combine half and half, sugar and cocoa. Cook until reduced and thickened. Fold in walnuts. Makes about 1 1/4 cups.
PERPEC (Albanian Easter Pie)
4 filo sheets
2 tablespoons butter, melted
Brush 1 sheet filo with butter and place in buttered 9-inch pie plate. Brush remaining filo sheets with butter and layer in pie dish. Pour filling into filo crust. Trim filo edges (about 2 inches beyond pie dish) and tuck under to form rim. Bake at 350 degrees 35 to 40 minutes or until custard is set. Makes 1 (9-inch) pie.
1 (8-ounce) carton plain yogurt
1/2 cup cottage cheese
3 to 4 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Beat eggs in bowl. Blend in yogurt, cottage cheese, sugar and vanilla.
Note: For savory pie filling, omit sugar and vanilla but add salt and about 1 teaspoon minced garlic.