and other recipes from the Middle East
POSTED ON: MAR 30, 2022
By: Blanche Shaheen / Arab America Contributing Writer
When Palestinians, Lebanese, Jordanians, and Syrians celebrate Easter, no bunnies or chocolate creme eggs enter into the equation. Instead, Easter is filled with the symbolism of Christ’s resurrection, with date cookies like mamoul, or breads like Ka’ak Asfar, or “Yellow Bread” in Arabic. There are so many interpretations of this kind of bread and what it signifies, not just in Arab countries, but in Greece and even Eastern European countries like Ukraine and Poland.
In Greece, the bread is called Artos or Tsoureki. Artos is flavored with cinnamon, cloves and wine, and is thick and sweet like a cake. This ceremonial bread is brought to church like an offering, and shared with the congregation. The priest blesses the bread, and people take it home to share with their families. In Ukraine, Paska (which means Easter) is a slightly sweet bread that is decorated with religious symbols. This bread is richer with the addition of eggs, butter, and milk, with a texture similar to challah. Ukrainians also take this bread to church to be blessed.
In Palestine and Jordan in particular, the ceremonial Easter bread is actually vegan and called Ka’ak Asfar. This version is rustic, and filled with distinctive and aromatic ingredients like ground anise seeds, fruity extra virgin olive oil, mahlab, and nigella and sesame seeds. All of these ingredients have been staples in baking in the Holy Land for centuries. The bread gets its vibrant yellow color from turmeric, and is traditionally eaten with hard boiled eggs and labneh cheese, or creamy kefir cheese at Easter time brunch. The bread is also delightful with labneh and homemade jam for a sweeter alternative.
People make ka’ak asfar to preserve an ancient tradition and lost art that has sadly waned over the years. If there is one bread that encapsulates the aroma and taste of breads sold outside of the Nativity Church in Bethlehem, or the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. It is Ka’ak Asfar.
While this recipe makes three decent sized loaves, traditionally families made many loaves to share with the church as well. Feel free to double or even triple the recipe if needed. Some tips when making ka’ak asfar is to make sure to use top quality extra virgin olive oil. For that authentic taste, unfiltered Palestinian olive oil is best, which you can find online or in middle eastern markets. Even if you are not religious, Ka’ak Asfar is a real treat, unlike any other bread you have ever tasted.
Sift 2 cups of flour into a large bowl. Then add the baking powder, turmeric, nutmeg, ground anise seeds, and sift everything together over the flour. Add the mahlab, nigella seeds, and sesame seeds. Mix it all thoroughly before adding wet ingredients.
Add the 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil and ¼ cup avocado oil to the flour mixture. You want to incorporate the oils into the flour with your fingers for the flour to absorb it all. It is best to leave this mixture for 6 hours before adding the wet ingredients so that the flour can adequately drink up the olive and avocado oils.
In a small bowl, add ½ cup sugar, 1 packet of yeast, and 1 cup of warm water. Stir it until the sugar is dissolved and frothy. Add the yeast mixture slowly to the flour mixture, working it in as you go. You might need more water depending on the kind of flour you use. You want the dough to be on the sticky side, because the flour will continue to absorb the water over time as you let it sit. Form the mixture into a large dough ball, then brush some olive oil on top to prevent it from drying. Then cover and put in a warm place for at least another hour. The more you let it rest the better.
Now separate the dough into 3 medium balls, or if you prefer you can bake it as one large loaf. Knead the dough into a thick disk. Using a large mold, flatten the mold on the disk to create a design. You can also use the bottom of a colander, or even a fork to make indentations. Put the bread on a cookie sheet, cover, and let the dough rest one more hour before baking. Then uncover, and bake in the oven at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes or until nicely browned.