Recipes with Julie Van Rosendaal: Easter breads

Every holiday comes with foods we associate with it and no other, and Easter is no exception. At this time of year, hot cross buns arrive in every bakery.
This babka is cinnamon bun flavoured. (Supplied by Julie Van Rosendaal)

Every holiday comes with foods we associate with it and no other, and Easter is no exception. At this time of year, hot cross buns arrive in every bakery, and there are the sweet, rich, elaborately decorated breads so fundamental to Ukrainian Easter celebrations.

This week on the Calgary Eyeopener, we talked about Ukrainian paska (which translates to "Easter") as well as the various babkas and loaves. 

It's a similar dough used to make all of the above, plus hot cross buns and even the cinnamon buns that will be part of many Easter brunch plans. The dough is sweetened with sugar and enriched with butter and eggs. So I made a single dough recipe that can be called into service for a wide range of Easter breads.

Hot cross buns, babka, Paska and other Easter breads

This is a simple dough that's wonderfully smooth and beautiful to work with. Once you get the hang of it, you can turn it into buns (add some cinnamon and raisins), paska and other Easter breads. 

This chocolate babka is made with a simple, smooth dough. (Julie Van Rosendaal)


  • ¾ cup milk, warmed
  • 2 tsp active dry yeast
  • 1/3 cup packed brown sugar
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour (plus about ¼ cup extra for hot cross buns)
  • 2 tsp cinnamon (optional, for hot cross buns)
  • 1 large egg
  • ¼ cup butter, softened
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1 tsp fine salt
  • 1 cup raisins, currants or other dried fruit (cherries, cranberries, chopped apricots) for hot cross buns or an unfilled babka or other loaf
  • ¼-½ cup chopped candied citrus peel (optional, for hot cross buns or an unfilled babka or other loaf)

Put the warm milk into a large bowl and sprinkle over the yeast. Let it sit for a few minutes to soften or dissolve, and if you're worried it may not be active, add a pinch of the sugar and let it sit (without disturbing it) for 10 minutes or so, until it starts to get foamy. If it doesn't, you may need fresh yeast.

Babka with poppy seed filling for Easter. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

Add the sugar, flour, cinnamon (if you're making hot cross buns), egg, butter, vanilla and salt and stir until the dough comes together. You could do all this with the dough hook attachment of your stand mixer. Continue to knead, turning it out onto your countertop if you're doing it by hand, until the dough is smooth and elastic.

Work in the dried fruit and candied citrus peel toward the end — you just don't want to knead it too much and break up the fruit. Cover and let rest for an hour or so (it can sit for up to a few hours, don't worry about timing it precisely). 

To bake loaves in cans: Divide the dough between greased cleaned-out cans. This quantity of dough is perfect for two 28 oz (796 ml) cans, like the ones tomatoes come in, which I used in the photo. Just aim to fill them half to three-quarters with dough before letting it rise.

I divide the dough into pieces and pull them into a tight oblong ball, like a potato. Typically with loaves or buns, you want to pull the surface tight, like a package.

Put into the cans, cover and let rise again for an hour or two.

When you're ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 F. If you like, brush the tops with some beaten egg and/or milk or cream. Bake for 30-45 minutes, until domed and deep golden.

Loafs in a can. One of many Easter breads you can make with one simple dough. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

To make hot cross buns: Divide the dough into 8-10 pieces and shape each into a ball, pulling the surface of the dough tight. Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet or into a buttered baking pan. Cover with a tea towel and set aside for another hour.

When you're ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 F. Put the flour and water into a small ziplock bag and knead to make a smooth paste. Snip off one corner and squeeze over the buns to make crosses.

Bake for 20-25 minutes, until deep golden.

In a small dish, melt the butter and honey and brush over the buns while they're still very warm.

To make hot cross buns, divide the dough into eight to 10 pieces and shape each one into a ball. (Julie Van Rosendaal )

For a coiled Ukrainian Easter bread:

I came across an ammonite-shaped loaf on Olia Hercules' website. The dough is filled and rolled, and the long roll is cut in half, much like the babka I've been making for years, before being curled into a large snail-like coil.

I tried the poppy seed filling, which is like a more traditional makoviy rulet (poppy seed roll), but the dough could be filled with other fillings as well. I included a few options I typically use when I make babka, another Eastern European sweet loaf that's also made with a sweet, buttery dough.

Olia's poppy seed filling: 

  • 200 ml milk
  • 100 g poppy seeds
  • 100 g pecans or walnuts, lightly toasted
  • 100 g sugar (white, brown or demerara)
  • 2 tsp vanilla
  • 80 g butter
  • 1-2 apples, chopped

Chocolate Filling:

  • ¼ cup butter
  • 6 oz dark or semi-sweet chocolate, chopped
  • ½ cup packed brown sugar
  • ¼ cup cocoa

Cinnamon Filling:

  • 1/3 cup butter, melted
  • ¾ cup packed brown sugar
  • 1 tbsp honey or syrup (corn, Roger's, maple)
  • 1 tbsp cinnamon
  • 1 egg, beaten (for brushing)

To make Olia's poppy seed filling: Combine the milk and poppy seed in a small saucepan and simmer for 20-30 minutes. The milk will get absorbed and evaporate as the seeds soften.

Cool and blitz in a food processor with the other ingredients, then stir in the chopped apple. (One if it's big, two if they're smaller. I didn't bother peeling mine.)

To make the chocolate filling: In a small saucepan, melt the butter and chopped chocolate over medium-high heat, stirring until smooth. Remove from the heat and stir in the brown sugar and cocoa. The mixture will have the consistency of thick paste.

To make the cinnamon filling: In a small bowl, mix the melted butter, brown sugar, honey or syrup and cinnamon. 

Roll the dough out into about a 12x16-inch rectangle and spread with your filling of choice. Roll up starting from a long side, making a long log. With a sharp or serrated knife, cut it in half lengthwise (I turn it so the seam is on the side, and I'm not cutting along it) and coil one of them up like a snail on a parchment-lined baking sheet, twisting it first, if you like.

Continue the coil by adding the second half to the end of the first, and tuck the end under the coil. You should have a big roll that looks like a snail. 

Cover with a tea towel or piece of plastic wrap and leave on the countertop for half an hour to an hour. When you're ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 F and brush the bread with some beaten egg. 

Bake for 30-40 minutes, until it's very deep golden and feels sort of hollow and set. If it's darkening too quickly, cover loosely with a piece of foil. Slide off the sheet onto a wire rack to cool.

Serves about 12.


Julie Van Rosendaal

Calgary Eyeopener's food guide

Julie Van Rosendaal talks about food trends, recipes and cooking tips on the Calgary Eyeopener every Tuesday at 8:20 a.m. MT. The best-selling cookbook author is a contributing food editor for the Globe and Mail, and writes for other publications across Canada.