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Easter Egg Breads: Sacred, Profane and Scrumptious

Blame it on the hens.

Eggs — white, brown, dyed, painted and chocolate — are everywhere this time of year. You might think this is because their unique yet universal form, like the number zero, reminds us that nature is hitting the "reset" button for the new year. Or maybe you think that people get a hankering for protein along with spring fever.

But it's really all about the hens. Their natural cycle leads to a production slowdown — or complete stop, in some cases — throughout the dark, cold winter.

When the spring equinox rolls around, however, the longer hours of daylight send a message to the hen's tiny brain ("Warmer temperatures, fresh food supply, time to breed"), and the eggs come back.

That's where what should really just be the hen's private business collides with human spiritual practice. Jews, pagans and every sort of Christian make much of the egg in their sacred rites of spring. Easter is the holiest day in the liturgical calendar, but it coincides with a host of pagan rites and debauchery.

The egg — symbol of rebirth and purity, but also of fertility and sex — makes for an apt metaphor for both the sacred and the profane.

Whatever the case, practical bakers got creative with the ovarian windfall, and lots of eggs ended up in bread. Some bakers, such as the Eastern Orthodox Christians, boiled and dyed eggs and buried them in ornate crown- or braid-shaped breads. Germans and Austrians, among others, made animal bread shapes: doves, hares, bears or foxes, with eggs for heads.

But by far the tastiest Easter-season breads do without metaphor and simply add the eggs to the dough, a bit of culinary cleverness that moistens and elasticizes the gluten structure of the bread, letting it rise high and mighty without drying out.

As a result, the centuries have bequeathed us an international carb-o-copia of leavened egg breads: Greek tsoureki, Eastern European babka, Russian kulich, English hot cross buns. And many of the braided Easter breads of Eastern Europe strongly resemble challah, the beloved Jewish egg bread eaten at Sabbaths yearlong — but not at Passover, when leavened breads are off the menu.

An eggy challah was the first yeast bread I ever made. As I kneaded the sweet, milky dough, I reveled in its resilient texture — its Spandex-like skin stretched tight over a ball so smooth it might have been a great big egg itself. I didn't know then that it was the eggs that made it so satiny and stretchy. I loved rolling out the ropes of dough and weaving them together. I hadn't had so much fun with anything since Play-Doh.

And when I took the great, steaming gilded braid out of the oven, I experienced that peculiar satisfaction usually reserved for crafters of buttercream roses, ice sculptures and a whole world of marzipan figurines: of having made something you can eat that looks like something that you can't.

But this was nothing compared to the egg-headed bread-beasts of sacred Easters past I had learned about. I didn't know, either, about the Paas Haasie (the Dutch Easter Bunny, a baked bread-hare with a whole egg right in the middle). Or the legend of the bird that the goddess Ostara transformed into a hare, and which laid eggs every subsequent spring in her honor.

And when my son tears into a hot cross bun, singing "one a penny, two a penny," he is not thinking of the British school that banned the traditional Good Friday treat last year when Jehovah's Witnesses called them a "pagan symbol of fertility."

Metamorphosis or metaphor? The promiscuous hare or the virtuous, productive hen?

For me, there is nothing ambiguous about the rise heavenward of an Easter egg bread, its crust emitting an odor of sanctity, its golden crumb as rich as manna. Call it what you will, egg bread allows me to believe that Easter is a time when you are not only what you eat, but, miraculously, just a little more.

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T. Susan Chang
T. Susan Chang regularly writes about food and reviews cookbooks for The Boston Globe, and the Washington Post. She's the author of A Spoonful of Promises: Recipes and Stories From a Well-Tempered Table (2011). She lives in western Massachusetts, where she also teaches food writing at Bay Path College and Smith College. She blogs at Cookbooks for Dinner.