Kulich, a Russian Easter bread at Medeo European Food and Deli in Westbrook. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

American home cooks know the Easter drill.

The holiday meal will almost certainly center around roast ham, lamb or – though much less popular, still traditional – salmon. They may round out the meal with a potato gratin or new potato salad, spring vegetables like asparagus, peas or carrots, and some freshly baked hot cross buns.

Cooks in other parts of the world have their own go-to dishes for the Easter feast, whether it’s paska bread in Russia (which observes the Orthodox Easter later in the spring, like other parts of Eastern Europe) or bacalao guisado stew in Puerto Rico.

The featured foods often have symbolic significance, representing an aspect of Christian faith or sometimes the change of seasons. But the dishes all demonstrate how different cultures showcase their local ingredients in dishes that are sometimes painstakingly prepared and then lovingly shared with family and friends.


Paska – a tall sweet bread enriched with eggs, studded with dried fruit and nuts and sometimes glazed — is the iconic food found on every Russian table at Orthodox Easter (which falls on May 5 this year). “It’s like a turkey for Thanksgiving,” said Irina Malayev, owner of Medeo European Food and Deli in Westbrook.


Paska Easter Bread from Royal Sweet Bakery, sold at Medeo European Food and Deli in Westbrook. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Malayev, who has both Russian and Ukranian roots, said paska is a traditional Easter food in both countries, and some other Eastern European countries as well. “It’s a lot of fun to notice how similar the traditions all are,” she said.

Between the seasons of Catholic-Protestant Easter and Orthodox Easter, Malayev said she usually sells more than 100 Paska breads. One year during the pandemic, she sold out early and was unable to restock in time for Orthodox Easter. So she took Italian panettone, another shelf-stable, brioche-dough bread with nuts and fruit (it’s traditional for Christmas), and glazed it to meet her customers’ paska needs.

“Nobody knew any different,” Malayev laughed. “We sold out of that, too.”

In the Russian Orthodox church, Malayev said it’s customary for parishioners to bring their paska and red-dyed Easter eggs to be blessed on the Saturday before Easter. The red eggs represent the blood of Jesus Christ.

According to lore, shortly after the resurrection of Jesus, Mary Magdalene took an egg to Roman Emperor Tiberius Caesar, held it out to him and proclaimed, “Christ is risen.” The emperor mockingly replied that a dead man had as much chance coming back to life as that egg turning red, at which point the egg is said to have turned red.

Irina Malayev, owner of Medeo European Food and Deli in Westbrook, talks to customer Renata Pietrzak on a recent Wednesday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Malayev said Russians also have a fresh farmer’s cheese version of paska. To make it, the cheese is pressed to squeeze out its moisture, then blended with eggs, sugar, raisins and nuts.


For her own Easter celebrations, Malayev makes another traditional Russian dish called Herring Under a Fur Coat. It’s a layered salad that starts with pickled herring, topped with shredded beets, potatoes, carrots, onion and eggs, with mayonnaise spread between the layers. She also makes Olivier Salad, a potato salad with eggs, pickles, carrots, peas and meat – typically ham, chicken or bologna.


While shopping for kielbasa at Medeo, Renata Pietrzak of Westbrook explained some Easter food traditions from her native Poland.

“Easter (in Poland) is about Sunday breakfast,” Pietrzak said. On Easter morning, Poles feast on a variety of cold dishes, including vegetable salads, cold cuts, and a white borscht made with cabbage, potatoes and hard-boiled eggs.

The white borscht usually features a mild white pork sausage known as biala kielbasa, or Easter kielbasa, seasoned with salt, garlic and marjoram.

Just as Russians have their paska and egg baskets blessed before the holiday, Poles also take food baskets to church for consecration. Each of the food items has its own symbolism. Kielbasa represents generosity, for instance, bread stands for Christ and the bread of life, salt symbolizes God’s children as the salt of the earth, and candy is a metaphor for having childlike faith.


The tradition of blessing the baskets is carried out annually at St. Louis Catholic Church in Portland’s West End, where Pietrzak will bring her own Easter food.

A 16-year-old Nancy Klosteridis bastes a whole roasted lamb while her cousin and extended family look on during a family Easter celebration in Pennsylvania in 2004. Photo courtesy of Nancy Klosteridis


For traditional Greek Orthodox Easter feasts, “It all starts in the morning with the magiritsa soup,” said Nancy Klosteridis, owner of The Greeks of Peaks food truck and the East Bayside Greek restaurant Mágissa, which is scheduled to open this spring.

She’s referring to the Greek Easter soup made with sheep organ meat, along with rice and lettuce, and flavored with avgolemono and fresh herbs. “It’s got a wholesomeness to it like chicken soup, and I don’t mind organ meat,” Klosteridis said. “But it’s a tough sell. Yia Yia and Papou (grandma and grandpa) told stories about how you eat the brains of the lamb and it makes you smart, you eat the eyes and you have good luck. There’s a bit of folklore that goes along with it.”

The soup is enjoyed later in the day with the rest of the Easter spread, but starts simmering first thing in the morning. The sheep organs come from a whole sheep that is traditionally spit-roasted for the main course.

When she was growing up, Klosteridis’s family roasted whole lambs every year for Easter. The extended Klosteridis family took turns hosting the Easter gathering – sometimes on Peaks Island, other times in Baltimore or Pennsylvania – with anywhere from 20-50 people taking part.


At any given time during the day, two people watched over the lamb and basted it with rosemary sprigs tied to a stick and dipped in red wine, lemon, garlic and salt, though the spectacle naturally drew more spectators. “It becomes kind of the focal point of the party,” Klosteridis said.

Lamb-shaped butter at Medeo European Food and Deli in Westbrook. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Her Papou would also bake dozens of loaves of tsoureki, the traditional Greek Easter bread, some for the family’s dinner and others to give to relatives and friends. Tsoureki is a braided bread made with egg-enriched dough, similar to challah, and flavored with mastic (tree resin that tastes like pine with a hint of vanilla) and mahlepi (made from ground cherry pits, with a fruity, musty flavor).

Sometimes eggs dyed with red beetroot juice would be baked into the bread for a decorative embellishment. And Klosteridis said her Papou would always hide a silver dime wrapped in foil in the dough before baking it.

“Whoever got the silver dime would have good luck for the year,” said Klosteridis. “It was a huge honor.”

Tsoureki traditionally conceals a gold coin, or flouri, inside the bread, but many Greek-American families use a dime instead, in a custom similar to the porcelain or plastic baby figurine baked into King Cake for New Orleans Mardi Gras parties.

“These were American Greek Easter traditions that we loved to enjoy, but every Greek family celebrates differently,” Klosteridis said. “It was really just a time to eat good food with family and enjoy each other’s company.”



Easter celebrations in Scandinavian countries like Sweden tend to be more secular and less religious, according to Samuel Wiese and Kristina Alving, co-owners of the Scandinavian bakery Fika in Saco. “It seems to be more about the awakening of spring, the new season and the longer days,” Alving said.

In Sweden and Norway, revelers mark the holiday with a påskbord, a casual Easter buffet much like a smörgåsbord, with smoked fish, pickled herring, new potatoes and meatballs. Norwegian celebrations also feature plenty of chocolate and fresh oranges, which symbolize the sunny days to come.

“Everybody uses the orange peels to put in their compost to welcome the arrival of the spring planting,” Alving said, noting earlier this month that she may bake an orange-chocolate treat to sell at Fika this Easter and musing about a chocolate babka knot with candied orange peel.

Baked goods play a prominent role at Easter in Denmark, according to Bowman Brown, chef and co-owner of the former Scandinavian-inspired bakeshop Jackrabbit Cafe and fine dining restaurant Elda, both in Biddeford; Elda will be moving to Portland.

Brown said fastelavnsboller, a Danish yeasted soft bun, is a sweet treat traditionally eaten before the start of Lent, though it’s also a part of many Easter feasts in Denmark. Bakers remove the tops of the buns, hollow out the center and fill the fastelavnsboller with custard, sometimes then dipping the whole thing in chocolate.


Danish bakers also make Hveder, or glazed wheat buns, during the Easter season. They’re traditionally made for Great Prayer Day, the fourth Friday after Easter, but Bowman said they’re on most people’s Easter tables as well.

“In those countries, they have so many pastries all the time, so it’s nice to have something different and special that’s available once a year and that’s it,” he said.


Bacalao guisado – salt cod stewed in a tomato broth with potatoes, onions, garlic, wine and lemon – is a Puerto Rican Easter staple. “That’s what you’re going to see on people’s tables,” said Ron Medlock, the chef of Puerto Rican restaurant Papi in the Old Port. Medlock’s family is Puerto Rican, and he lived on the island as a young boy.

The stew is often served over rice, or viandas, a dish of steamed tropical root veggies. Medlock’s family would also serve it with cornmeal dumplings or mofongo, green plantains mashed with garlic and crunchy pork rinds.

Medlock remembers how his grandfather would pull out his big mortar and pestle for the Easter mofongo. “My grandmother had a mortar and pestle that was smaller that she would use for everyday,” he recalled. “But it was special when Grandpa grabbed the big one, because you knew everybody was getting together. If you were hanging around, he’d give you some little crispy parts for a treat.”


And because there’s plenty of bacalao on hand for stew, another common Puerto Rican Easter treat is bacalaitos, or codfish fritters.

But codfish isn’t the only Easter attraction. A typical Puerto Rican holiday spread may also include special-occasion dishes like pernil (slow-roasted pork shoulder) and arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas), both staples on Papi’s menu.

Making the pernil is a multi-day process. Medlock said his grandfather would start by salting the pork shoulder’s skin, then leaving it in the fridge for a while to season and draw out excess moisture. Next, he’d slit holes in the roast, fill them with a paste of olive oil, oregano, garlic, sofrito and cilantro, and let the pork marinate for two days. First thing in the morning on Easter Sunday, he’d put the pernil in the oven.

“There’s nothing like waking up and smelling the pernil in the air, and little hints of the best (Puerto Rican) coffee,” Medlock said.

Later in the day, when his grandfather’s pernil was ready, the meat would be succulent and meltingly tender. But the crunchy skin was the greatest treasure.

“It was the magic of his process to get the cueritos, the skin, so fine, crispy and glass-like,” Medlock said. “There was just a little bit of it, but everybody got a piece. It was like gold. It’s crazy how a pork shoulder can evoke so many emotions and great memories.”


Tsoureki (Easter Twist)
This is a family recipe from Nancy Klosteridis; you will need a scale to make it. Her grandfather used to bake dozens of loaves of tsoureki, some for the family Easter dinner and others to give to relatives and friends. The loaf, we’re told, also makes fantastic French toast bread.

To make the egg wash, lightly beat 1 egg with 1 tablespoon milk or water. To make the simple syrup, combine equal parts granulated sugar and water in a pan and heat together on the stovetop until the sugar is melted.

Yield: 2 loaves

110 grams warm water (110 degrees F)
24 grams dry yeast
230 grams sugar, plus several pinches
3 grams ground mastic
10 grams mahlepi
150 grams milk
135 grams butter
4 eggs, room temperature
870 grams bread flour
20 grams orange zest
Egg wash
300 grams simple syrup
Toasted almonds, for sprinkling (optional)

Mix the water, yeast and a pinch sugar together in a small bowl. Set aside for 6-7 minutes until foaming.

In a separate small bowl, mix the mastic, mahlepi and another pinch of sugar and set aside.


In a saucepan set over low heat, combine the milk, the remaining 230 grams sugar and the butter and warm until the butter is just melted. Do not bring to a boil.

Add the eggs to the bowl of a food mixer and whisk on low until combined. Pour the foamy yeast mixture into the bowl and whisk until combined. Change the attachment to a dough hook and add the flour, orange zest and spice mix. Mix on low until a shaggy dough forms, and then on medium for 5-10 minutes more until the dough pulls away from the bowl and is slightly sticky. Place the dough into a large lightly greased bowl, cover and let rest overnight in the refrigerator.

The next morning, remove the dough from the refrigerator and let it come to room temperature. Gently deflate the dough and turn it out onto a lightly floured surface. Divide the dough into 6 equal portions. Create long ropes of dough (10-12 inches) by rolling and stretching 3 portions of dough.

Pinch together the three ends and braid the dough into a classic braid, pinching together at the ends. Place the formed loaf on a parchment-covered sheet tray and repeat the process with the remaining 3 dough portions.

Cover the loaves with plastic wrap or a kitchen towel until doubled in size, 45 minutes to 1 hour and 15 minutes, depending on how warm and drafty your home is. When they are nearly ready, preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.

Lightly brush the loaves with egg wash. Bake for 30-40 minutes, until the loaves are a deep brown. Remove from the oven.

Brush the loaves with simple syrup while they are still hot and sprinkle with toasted almonds if you like. Cool them before slicing and serving.

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