April is a sweet month with lots of holidays to celebrate: Andrew Coppolino
From hot cross buns to coconut macaroons to torrijas, lots of options for traditional treats
The world's great religions serve up traditional sweets at their important celebrations and observances, many of which coincide in the last couple of weeks of April.
During Ramadan, fasting is broken by iftar and that might include sweet pastries like baklava and qatayef, which is a small pancake or cheese blintz stuffed with "ishta," a thick cream, and a sugar syrup for dipping.
At this time of the year in the Caribbean, Trinidadians will enjoy sweet coconut bread with nutmeg, cinnamon and candied fruit.
"It's really a popular sweet for all celebrations," according to Kitchener-based chef and Trinidadian food expert Arielle Neils. (See Neils' recipe below).
Of course, hot cross buns are hot sellers at this time of the year at grocery stores and independent bakeries. Grainharvest Breadhouse, COBS and Nougat all sell limited supplies of the popular buns, as does Aura-la Pastries & Provisions, who draw on an old European recipe.
"What we really like about our recipe is that we use dried currants and candy our own oranges and lemons. The yeast dough undergoes a pre-ferment for a lot of extra flavour. It's a two- to three-day process for our hot cross buns, and then there's a nice orange syrup on top," says owner Aura Hertzog.
Hertzog also observes Passover, which is the same weekend as Easter this year. She says at meals for Passover, you'll often find matzoh ball soup, sweet and sour soup and brisket. For sweets without wheat gluten, you'll find coconut as a binder.
"Coconut macaroons are very popular and lots of fresh fruit," Hertzog said.
At Sweets by Merav, Merav Levene bakes matzoh-based desserts and pastries that are covered generously in chocolate, caramel and nuts. She also prepares a flourless chocolate mousse, fudge cake, almond cookies, coconut macaroons and uses nut flours to replace the wheat flour in recipes.
Matzoh, with its historical and religious significance, is "like a cracker, or bread that didn't rise," Levene said.
"When the Jews were enslaved in Egypt and got away, they didn't have time to let bread dough rise, so they ended up with matzoh."
If you're in Spain during Easter, you may find a version of "French toast" being made. But according to Vanessa Stankiewicz of La Lola Catering in Cambridge, the sweet is called torrijas de leche, a dessert or coffee snack made with day-old bread, eggs and wine. (See La Lola Catering's recipe below.)
"You pan-fry the bread and pour over top a simple syrup with white wine and let it soak in. This is a typical sweet during Semana Santa, or Holy Week, in Spain," says Stankiewicz.
According to Paul Masbad at Nuestro 88 in Kitchener, Filipinos in various parts of the islands will enjoy pastillas de leche and yema, a soft candy made with egg yolks, milk and sugar, and polvoron which are cookies made with toasted flour.
In the Czech Republic and other eastern European nations, people eat pastries packed with fruit and a ring-shaped cake with fruit-liquor glazes, raisins, almonds and poppy seeds.
April 24 is Easter for Orthodox Christians in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and in Canada. For the Ukrainian Catholic Church of the Transfiguration on Victoria Street in Kitchener, the celebration includes tradition breads and sweets, which are important according to Patricia Pawelko.
"Our Easter sweet bread is plain or with raisins or cherries. It's a staple for Easter breakfast after church," says Pawelko who is the head cook overseeing the kitchen at the Church.
Like people breaking fast at Ramadan with blini-like pancakes, the Ukraine community makes crepes filled with cottage cheese, sugar and egg which Pawelko describes as very sweet and covered in butter.
"We also make cheesecake, but it's more like a pressed cottage cheese which is very traditional," she said.
Tradition in fact defines these sweets, and at this time in Ukraine that's even more poignant given the invasion by Russian forces. For Pawelko, her role at the Church and its kitchen is one that provides continuity and stability within the local Ukrainian community.
"I took over this role from my mother who was head cook here for over 40 years," Pawelko said. "She's 95 now, but she still supervises in the kitchen."
From La Lola Catering
Day-old bread or sweet bread soaked in milk, cinnamon, cardamom, star anise
4 large eggs
1 litre of whole milk
1 cup of sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 strip each of lemon and orange peel
1 star anise
Bring the milk, ½ cup of sugar, lemon and orange peel and spices to a slow simmer.
Cut the bread in thick slices. When the milk mixture has been simmering for about 15 minutes, turn off the heat and soak the slices of bread in the mixture. Be careful not to completely wet them to the point that they will break apart, but try to get them to absorb as much milk as possible.
Let the slices of wet bread rest and cool (some liquid may be lost). Beat the eggs in a shallow bowl and dip the bread slices in the egg mixture.
In the meantime, heat up about ½ inch of the olive oil in a deep, heavy pan on medium-high heat. Fry the slices two at a time, flipping them halfway so that both sides are nice and crisp.
Let the torrijas rest on paper towels to absorb excess oil. If you don't want to cover with cinnamon and sugar, then you can make the simple syrup with sweet wine or honey and soak them.
From Arielle Neils
Ingredients for the sweet bread (2 loaves)
3 cups all purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
2 cups shredded coconut (fresh or frozen)
2/3 cup raisins or dried cranberries
2/3 cup mixed/glazed fruit
1/2 cup halved Maraschino cherries (red, green of both)
1 teaspoon each almond and vanilla extract
2/3 cup unsalted butter (melted)
1 cup milk
Ingredients for the glaze
2 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons sugar
Preheat oven to 350F. Grease two loaf pans.
Sift together flour, baking powder, nutmeg, cinnamon and salt. In a separate bowl, mix together shredded coconut, raisins, mixed fruit and cherries.
To the melted butter add milk, sugar, beaten eggs, almond and vanilla. Combine milk mixture and fruits. Add sifted dry ingredients into the fruit combination and mix until all of the flour is fully incorporated.
Pour into two greased loaf pans and garnish with a little extra cherries and mixed fruit.
Bake for 55 to 60 minutes or until a tester comes out clean. Mix glaze ingredients and pour half of mixture over each loaf. Return the bread to the oven for 3-4 minutes and sprinkle a little granulated sugar over the top to give a frosted appearance. Allow to cook in pan for at least 30 minutes. Turn over and allow to cool on a wire rack.